uniaktuell The online magazine of the University of Bern

uniaktuell from 2015

"You always stand on the shoulders of predecessors"

The Bernese climate and environmental physicist Thomas Stocker has been awarded this year’s Marcel Benoist Swiss Science Prize. Before the award ceremony, Stocker presented his prize-winning research on climate models at the University of Bern. The media conference of the Marcel Benoist foundation was attended by Swiss Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann.

By Nathalie Matter

His research findings are of great importance to human life, and address one of the main challenges facing today’s society: this is how the Marcel Benoist Foundation justified its decision to give this year’s Marcel Benoist Swiss Science Prize to Thomas Stocker, climate researcher at the University of Bern. He is being awarded for his groundbreaking work on ice core drilling and climate modelling and for establishing the consequences of climate change.

At the media conference of the Marcel Benoist Foundation, which is approaching it’s centenary, the Board chaired by Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann announced the reorganisation of the foundation. Stocker then presented his prize-winning research, before guiding Johann Schneider-Ammann and representatives of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Federal Government through the laboratory facilities.

Innovation as elixir for survival

Swiss Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann described science and research as central drivers for Switzerland, and innovation as an elixir for survival. He announced that the Marcel Benoist Foundation, which awards the "Swiss Nobel Prize", is in a solid position for the next twenty years, thanks to renowned donors. This is also a "commitment to Switzerland and its research excellence". The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) is also an important supporter, as Matthias Egger, President of the National Research Council explained: in future, the SNSF will perform the evaluation of the prize winners, and carry out the award ceremony. The Marcel Benoist prize will remain "a prize for established researchers – such as Thomas Stocker – and with future potential – like Thomas Stocker, i.e. not a prize for junior researchers like other Swiss prizes."

Two world records planned

Thomas Stocker expressed his delight about the prize, which in his words also goes to the University of Bern and climate research. He thanked his employees, who have helped to develop and think for 24 years, and his predecessors, who established the research field in Switzerland: "You always stand on the shoulders of predecessors." The SNSF’s consistent support of his work since his doctoral thesis also enabled his success.

With the prize money of 250,000 Francs, Stocker can now do things "that you normally don’t get funded – like setting new world records". Until now, in the scope of his ice core drilling research, he has already drilled the oldest ice on earth until now (800,000 years old). Using this climate archive, Stocker was able to prove that there was no comparable increase in the greenhouse gas CO2 in the past, to what has been taking place in the last 50 years.

Now, the second and third world record should follow: With the smallest driller that has ever been used, Stocker and his team plan to extract the oldest ice ever drilled (1.5 million years old) at a depth of 2.5 kilometres. Using the reconstruction of climate changes of the past, Stocker developed models to calculate future climate developments, and man-made climate change. He was able to demonstrate the consequences to governments worldwide, which is why the Marcel Benoist Foundation describes him as a "key player in climate research on the national and international stage."

Going deep with the dentist's driller

On a tour through the laboratories, Stocker's employees presented the previous and future ice core drilling research.

The physicist Jakob Schwander explained the pinhole technology he developed with the driller, which is no larger than an electric toothbrush. It has already been successfully tested in Greenland. A great advantage of the Bernese technology is the minimal logistical effort: with a diameter of the drill hole of just two centimetres, the ultra-light ice driller requires 40 times less drill fluid than a conventional ice bore. To achieve a depth of 2.5 kilometres, it needs around 3 days. The start of the actual drilling in the Antarctic is set for 2020, after test drillings in order to find the perfect drilling site for the «Oldest ice project». Once the ice core is removed, it goes through an extensive chemical and physical analysis. The Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research of the University of Bern plays an important role in the international research consortium.

Swiss Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann could convince himself of the quality of the Bernese research: a further employee placed a piece of 400,000 year old ice in his hand, in which the air pockets were clearly recognisable.

Decades of research bearing fruit

The Marcel Benoist prize is a great distinction, says Christian Leumann, Rector of the University of Bern: "It shows that research is recognised that we have been promoting for decades." This success goes back to the second half of the last century, when climate physics was a niche area, and when there were people at the University of Bern who believed that it was not only an interesting area, but also a relevant one for the world. "These people had the foresight to establish climate physics at the University of Bern. Now, we are reaping the fruits of this", said Leumann. Such research can only be managed in the long term, as it depends on technological development. In addition, the prize winning research is not just an isolated project, but a big international research cooperation.

Marcel Benoist Swiss Science Prize

Since 1920, established scientists have been awarded with the Marcel Benoist Swiss Science Prize every year for their significant works and their effects on human life. The prize was awarded to a Bernese researcher for the seventh time. In its almost hundred year history, until now ten prize winners have later received the Nobel prize. The two ETH's and the ten universities in Switzerland are represented in the foundation board of the Marcel Benoist foundation.