“The polar regions are an utterly fascinating scientific playground”

Jérôme Chappellaz © Jean-Yves Vitoux, Institut polaire français IPEV

Jérôme Chappellaz © Jean-Yves Vitoux, Institut polaire français IPEV

Joining EPFL to head the Ferring Pharmaceuticals Margaretha Kamprad Chair in Environmental Sciences, Jérôme Chappellaz brings decades of experience studying the evolution of the earth’s climate and sharing his findings with the public.

As a child, Jérôme Chappellaz dreamed of following in the footsteps of Haroun Tazieff, a scientific childhood hero. As a vulcanologist, he would investigate the planet through the lens of fire. Then, during his studies in geochemistry and geophysics, he was introduced to polar science. Its unique chemistry and physics he encountered left him spellbound. So much so that fire gave way to ice as the lens through which he would study the world.

Today, Chappellaz, who holds EPFL’s Ferring Pharmaceuticals Margaretha Kamprad Chair in Environmental Sciences in the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), can look back at over three decades of research dedicated largely to the frozen expanses at the extreme ends of our planet. “The polar regions are an utterly fascinating scientific playground. Their complexity and entanglement of physical, chemical, and biological processes force us to be interested in many disciplines. At the same time, we work on issues of vital importance to society,” he says.

Sixteen times he’s been to the poles, with eleven campaigns to Antarctica and five to the Arctic. There, as former director of the French Polar Institute Paul-Émilie Victor (IPEV), which operates a polar research station in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard with the German Alfred-Wegener-Institute (AWI), he’s seen the impact of global warming firsthand.

Located at 78 degrees latitude north, right on a global warming hotspot where temperatures are rising 3-4 times faster than the global average, the research station and its surroundings have transformed beyond recognition. “During the winter, you used to be able to cross the frozen fjord on snowmobiles. Today there is no more ice, so that’s over. And more and more, we see North Atlantic fish species enter the fjord, which used to be populated exclusively by arctic ones,” he says.

Tapping into the potential of new technologies at EPFL

Countless unknowns still impact the projections of future Earth’s warming climate. According to Chappellaz, reducing the uncertainties is vital to better understand what’s yet to come. “To what extent will the warming climate affect terrestrial and marine greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in amplifications and feedback loops that further degrade the trajectory that our activities have put us on? This is where I want to add my stone to the edifice,” he says.

Specifically, how are greenhouse gases are produced, broken down, and exchanged between oceanic, terrestrial, and atmospheric reservoirs? Answering these questions in inhospitable polar environments is both costly and extremely challenging. To take an example: 40% of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the world’s oceans is absorbed in the Southern Ocean, where stormy seas make it very difficult to document the transfer of CO2 along the water column.

Ice breakers give scientists sporadic access to these remote yet critically important locations. Still, the data they gather is valuable but insufficient to gain a full understanding of local biochemical processes. “My goal,” says Chappellaz, “is to increase the number of observations we can rely on. I joined EPFL because I am convinced that this will require tapping into new technologies that are low-cost, can be deployed in large numbers, and operate autonomously. EPFL’s potential in this space is extraordinary.”

Chappellaz is in the process of setting up his lab at EPFL’s Alpine and Polar Research Center (ALPOLE), based in Sion. The SENSE Lab (Sensing in Extreme Environments) focuses on developing new means to monitor and understand the physical and biogeochemical processes in extreme environments, building, in particular, on a device he patented to analyze gases dissolved in liquids. He’s already struck up a collaboration with EPFL’s Kumar Agrawal, who develops new membranes that could be adapted to his device, to further enhance its capabilities.

Training an enlightened generation of engineers

Like Tazieff, his childhood hero and documentary filmmaker, Chappellaz has always been committed to public outreach. At EPFL Valais Wallis, he will take on the role of scientific spokesperson. The same commitment drives his involvement in co-creating the new mandatory module in sustainability for new students at EPFL. “It’s quite a topic,” says Chappellaz. “How can we ensure that engineers that graduate from EPFL aren’t just brilliant in their specific field but are also enlightened when it comes to seeing the big picture and the planetary challenges we face?”

Rather than simply exploring planetary limits from various perspectives, student representatives involved in developing the course urged the professors to go further and explore the political economy of climate change. What levers could they manipulate to enact real change? “It seems that students are prepared to even question liberalism and capitalism,” says Chappellaz, who for decades has observed the gap between the alarming scientific findings around climate change and sluggish political action. “In my view, we won’t succeed until we change the software that runs our society. But it won’t be easy,” he says.

Preserving ice cores for future generations

While political efforts to rein in climate change have been slow, technological progress towards understanding the phenomenon continues apace. Earlier in his career and using the methods available at the time, Chappellaz constructed an 800’000-year timeline of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) concentrations by sampling gasses trapped in ice cores that revealed the clear impact human activities have had on the world’s climate.

Convinced that future technologies will reveal further insights from ice layers in glaciers, he launched the international Ice Memory initiative in 2015. Under UNESCO patronage, the initiative will seek to preserve ice cores from disappearing glaciers in a “natural freezer” on the Antarctic continent. By creating a frozen archive of the past climate, this initiative will give future generations of scientists the raw material they need to investigate the planet’s past climate and environment, like Chappellaz, through the lens of ice.