An Alpine research adventure: On sabbatical in Germany studying the climate

October 8, 2014

Ankur Desai, an associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and a faculty affiliate of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, recently returned from a year abroad, completing a sabbatical in Germany and also traveling to Iceland, India, Israel, Italy and Poland. Below is a short first-person description of the experience from Desai, as well as photos illustrating his adventure.  

I spent my sabbatical at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology’s Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, Atmospheric Environmental Research, Campus Alpin, shortened in German to KIT IMK-IFU.

map of Garmisch Germany
Map of where Garmisch is located. Garmisch-Partenkirchen is sometimes called GaPa and was home to the 1936 Winter Olympics.

The institute is located in the picturesque Bavarian Alps town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, about an hour south of Munich and an hour north of Innsbruck, Austria, at the northern spine of the Alps. It is home to Germany's tallest peak, the Zugspitze, and its largest ski resort.

A typical day biking to work
A typical day biking to work.

The research lab has around 100 staff, including a couple dozen graduate students, who work broadly in areas of interactions of the climate system with vegetation. In particular, they are well known for measurements of soil and atmosphere biogeochemistry at sites all over the world. Local research sites include several Alpine grasslands, where translocated soil cores from different altitudes are used to simulate climate warming effects on soil biota and gas fluxes.

Yaks on a grassland
Yaks on a grassland near the institute.

I worked in the lab of senior scientist Matthias Mauder on topics of atmospheric turbulent flux measurement, very high resolution computational simulations of how vegetation interacts with the atmosphere, and retrospective data analysis of how Alpine mountain wind flows influence grassland productivity.

Soil chamber measurement system
One of the translocated Alpine soils and the soil chamber measurement system that is part of the TERRENO experiment.

KIT IMK-IFU is also home of the Mechanisms and Interactions of Climate Change in Mountain Regions (MICMOR) program, funded by the Helmholtz Society. I was appointed the MICMOR Visiting Scientist for 2014 and led a Ph.D. summer school, Examining Mountain Ecosystems in Regional to Global Environments of Carbon-Cycling and Climate (EMERGE-CC). During this course, a dozen students from various places conducted field investigations of carbon cycling at IFU research sites.

Students take soil gas samples at an Alpine grassland
EMERGE-CC students take soil gas samples at an Alpine grassland.

A particularly exciting aspect was designing an experiment that involved a carbon dioxide (CO2) instrument installed onto a powered open-cockpit microlight aircraft that flew along a valley to "chase CO2." 

students prepare for takeoff of the microlight aircraft for a field experiment
Students prepare for the takeoff of the microlight aircraft for an EMERGE-CC field experiment.