Storm as project is refused funding

January 14, 2000


Researchers at five of Switzerland's top universities are furious that the Swiss research funding authority has refused support for an ambitious inter-university project to investigate links between climate change and natural disasters.

The preliminary verdict said the research was "unimportant" only days before Hurricane Lothar stormed through Europe with devastating results.

The project involves Zurich and Lausanne polytechnics and the universities of Geneva, Berne and Fribourg. It aims to establish causal links between global warming, epochal climate changes and environmental disasters. But a panel of experts at the Swiss National Scientific Research Foundation ruled that the project was "not of strategic importance" and did not shortlist it.

A few days later, unprecedented storms, with winds of up to 200km an hour, ravaged France, Germany and Switzerland. In the Swiss Federation the hurricane caused avalanches, cable car damage, uprooted trees and hurled boats on Lake Geneva from their moorings onto the shore. At least 11 people died.

A score of scientists from Swiss universities have been preparing the project for some time. Among them is Berne's Christian Pfister, who has been studying agricultural records from the past 1,000 years to develop models and patterns of climatic change.

He found that Lothar and a previous hurricane, Viviane, struck within ten years of each other, while earlier ones occurred only on average once a century.

"We have enough data to investigate the connection between climate changes and natural catastrophes, but apparently this research is not desired in Switzerland," he said.

"Heinz Wanner, the climatologist at Berne University who is heading the project, said that the final decision on which projects will receive financing will only be made in March. Perhaps the experts at the foundation will change their minds after what happened."

Of 82 proposals presented to the foundation this year, the only environmental project to be shortlisted related to water supply.

Spokesman Urs Christ said: "Our experts generally make a preselection on the basis of the outlines presented. They did not consider the climate project to have strategic importance, but if the project is improved, there is no reason for it to be rejected."

He said that the foundation could finance only ten projects, and that the climate project, which would cost about SFr12 million (Pounds 3.8 million) a year for four to ten years, has less of a chance than the others that have been shortlisted.

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