14th International Swiss Summer School

by Peter Gibson
The 14th International Swiss Summer School was held at Monte Verita, Ascona on the shores of Lake Maggiore in southern Switzerland and was attended by Tammas Loughran and myself.

The tranquil location, likely, assisted gathering world leading professors from the climate extremes community, promising postdoctoral and doctoral candidates with outstanding future research potential, and myself. Upon arriving at Locarno train station the swarm of tired-looking students dragging suitcases and wizard staffs (poster tubes) provided a slightly bizarre Hogwarts-esque scene. Fortunately, no head-first running into walls between platforms 9 and 10 ensued. Instead, we were greeted by organizer Prof. Sonia Seneviratne and informed of the structure and goals of the summer school.

It became increasingly clear that this would be no picnic, even though the lakeside balcony view from the conference centre might have suggested otherwise.

The view from the Balcony at the Summer School. Picure: Peter Gibson


As the week progressed so too did the diversity of key note lectures. Topics varied from atmospheric dynamics, attribution of climate extremes, data issues surrounding our understanding of climate extremes (brilliantly delivered by our own Lisa Alexander) to impacts and adaptation. Following each talk, a generous amount of time was allocated to an open discussion of the topic. These were never dull, sometimes heated and always thought-provoking. A stream of workshops alongside a group student project ensured a busy but productive week.

Outside the classroom, I had a number of memorable conversations with other attendees. To my toolbox I added a new trick for studying large-scale atmospheric dynamics related to heat waves and opened new doors for exciting future collaborations in this area.

Following the workshop I travelled to ETH in Zurich where we discussed possible land surface interactions in the context of heat waves, and how we can squeeze the most out of the existing patchwork of observations to better understand these driving processes.

The most memorable discussions I had during my week at Monte Verita were not always ‘scientific’ in nature. I became friends with a man whose extended family in Pakistan suffered through the recent June heat wave which killed thousands. The vulnerability of the local people to the extreme meteorological conditions was exacerbated by electricity blackouts in the city, I learnt. In a city where the urban heat island effect already pushes temperatures up several degrees Celsius, whether you could afford a backup generator for air conditioning literally becomes a matter of life or death.

As the heat event unfolded I had sat comfortably in my air-conditioned office studying maps for suspiciously unusual patterns in the atmosphere, yet was unaware of the issues of poor town planning and energy management that had really made this the devastating event it was. An unfortunate reality is that societies most vulnerable to climate extremes now and into the future are those that have contributed little to human-induced climate change itself.

As physical climate scientists we are a vital cog in the machine of efforts that contribute to reducing the risks associated with climate extremes. At the same time it seems our contribution will be most effective if we are open to working with a range of people from different fields and open to thinking about our problems in new ways. While this might sound obvious, the student project at the workshop highlighted (embarrassingly) that effective interdisciplinary work is hugely challenging. These were valuable experiences that will no doubt shape how I think about the real value and societal relevance of my work on climate extremes into the future.

Tammas and I would like to thank the financial support provided by Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science which enabled our attendance to this memorable event. 

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