Blueprint for Disaster

The hotter the climate becomes, the more environmental problems we face. Switzerland is no exception. Geographer Christian Huggel researches what the worst-case scenarios would look like.

By Thomas Gull; English translation by Gena Olson

The world needs to prepare for a hotter future, and Switzerland is no exception. Christian Huggel, a professor of geography at the University of Zurich, is working together with the University of Fribourg on behalf of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) to address this problem. Huggel’s project focuses on what is termed “wild card” risks: unpredictable events with a low likelihood of occurring but a high potential for causing damage. As the temperature climbs higher, these events will occur with more frequency and ferocity. The goal of the project is to model extreme events and develop strategies to cope with them – or even better, to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Let’s look at three scenarios that we need to be prepared for.

1 Forest damage by storms, avalanches, drought or the spread of pests. A weakened forest would no longer be able to protect alpine areas such as the Urseren Valley and would have to be replaced with expensive artificial structures. Large-scale forest fires like the ones that have devastated California could also occur. Huggel says that the heatwave of summer 2018 showed that Swiss forests “seem to be more vulnerable than we thought.” In some areas, various tree species – beech, maple, spruce, pine and silver fir – died off from the drought conditions alone. Other consequences of weakened forests? Damage from falling trees, loss of revenue in the timber industry, consequences for tourism as well as for the transport and energy infrastructure.

2 Heat could put pressure not just on forests but also on agriculture. Extended summer heat and drought can lead to supply shortages for food and animal feed and put farmers’ livelihoods at risk. “These hot and dry summers aren’t just limited to Switzerland,” explains Huggel. “Usually all of Central Europe is affected.” This means that Switzerland would not easily be able to import food to cover any shortages.

3 The third problem concerns the water and energy supply. Water is needed in agriculture, for cooling down nuclear power plants, for producing energy and for use in manufacturing and households. Today Switzerland relies on glacier water to bridge longer dry periods in the summer. If the glaciers disappear, so does this important backup water source. Other events that are exacerbated by climate change – storms, avalanches, mudslides and floods – can also threaten the electricity supply and infrastructure such as streets and buildings.

Huggel has been working on the FOEN study since this summer. The aim is to help us better prepare for possible catastrophes, but lowering CO2 emissions early enough would be even better. “If we can’t, then we're all in deep trouble,” remarks Huggel. He says that the goal of limiting global warming to a 1.5°C increase – the target formulated in the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015 – constitutes “an enormous challenge for society.” If we cannot achieve this target, then we can expect Huggel’s disaster scenarios to turn out even worse.