Research Groups

IDYST currently includes 11 professors, five lecturers and senior lecturers and 15 research collaborators and research associates. A new professorship is likely being filled in the autumn of 2018. The principle research topics are spearheaded by a number of research groups with distinct acronyms (LAKES, ALPWISE, ICE, ISOLAB, LGE, GAIA, BIOGEOSCIENCES, SPATIAL ECOLOGY, SE) but the research groups rely on strong collaborative interactions amongst all groups.

The research focus of each group is described in more detail below:

Alpine Environments: Water, Ice, Sediments and Ecology

AlpWise (Stuart Lane)

The last 100 years have witnessed serious pressures on mountain environments arising from the combined effects of climate and human forcing. In terms of natural processes, this timescale remains a critical challenge for three reasons. First, it contains a significant stochastic component that has to be separated from climate or human drivers. Second, it requires careful experimental design to separate out direct human impacts from natural processes such as climatic variability. Third, there are important and often overlooked feedbacks in response to climate and human forcing, such as in ecosystem response, which can in turn both accelerate or slow landscape change. In some cases, understanding this ecosystem response is important in its own right so as to secure a sound scientific basis for ecosystem protection and restoration.

ALPWISE approaches these questions through a combination of state of the art technologies, notably in remote sensing, with the study of particular field environments and numerical modelling. ALPWISE’s research includes both fundamental research topics, such as flow, sediment transfer and ecological processes in rivers, and more applied research questions, such as how human-induced climate change and human activities such as hydroelectricity, impact upon landscape form and process, and how to improve environmental restoration.



Biogeosciences (Eric Verrecchia, Stéphanie Grand)

The Laboratory of Biogeosciences conducts research on soils and superficial formations, predominantly in tropical but also in temperate environments. Its two main research areas are (i) the integration of organic matter in soils from a biogeochemical perspective and (ii) the relationships between the carbon and the calcium coupled-cycles from a functional point of view (current present-day processes) and in an historical perspective (during the Cenozoic). The main questions raised by the research concern (i) the stability of organic matter in soils in the presence of calcium, iron, and aluminum, (ii) the interactions between mineral and organic matter in soils and carbonate superficial formations from temperate and tropical environments, (iii) the role of microorganisms in the dynamics of calcium carbonate at the surface of continents, (iv) the soil-plant interface at the scale of ecosystems, and finally (iv) the capacity of continental carbonate deposits and calcareous soils to act as continental carbon sinks long term. The analytical approaches use conventional tools (isotope and elemental geochemistry, mineralogy, petrography) but also rely on newer or in-progress techniques (Rock Eval pyrolysis applied to soils, OSL and U-Th dating on “impure” carbonate, geomicrobiology). The laboratory is part of a bi-university team in Biogeosciences, which includes the Microbiology Laboratory and the Functional Ecology Laboratory at the University of Neuchâtel.


Catchment Hydrology

Cat Hydro (Bettina Schaefli) 

Water resources management relies on predictions of dominant hydrological processes at the catchment scale, to quantify available water resources for current and future situations or to predict possible extremes.

Current hydrological models often rely on poor quality observations of the water cycle (in particular precipitation, discharge. evaporation). Our team is working to combine state of the art monitoring and modeling of water resources at the catchment scale. We are developing the use of stable isotopes of water as a tool for uncertainty prediction of the relative water resources in Switzerland. We aim to asses the origin of available water resources and unravel shortcomings in hydrologic predictions, with a currently strong focus on Alpine hydrology.



Ecotoxicology (Nathalie Chèvre)

The ecotoxicology group has a strong experience in risk assessment of mixture of organic chemicals. It investigated the limits of mixture models for risk prediction, as well as the behavior, effects and bioaccumulation of flame-retardants in the ecosystems. The development of new or adapted existing ecotoxicological testing for more robust risk assessment are central to the research. In particular, the ecotoxicology group proposed algae tests for pulse exposure assessment, or multi-generational testing for evaluating the effects of pseudo-persistent compounds such as pharmaceuticals.

Currently, the group is developing biomarkers approaches for highlighting effects on organisms and populations at very early life stages, and heavily involved involved in regulatory processes (water/sediment quality criteria). The group expertise in chemical risk assessment is frequently asked by the media and through a blog for the journal Le Temps:


Environmental Geochemistry Lab

LGE (Jasquelin Peña)

Environmental Geochemistry Lab's expertise is in molecular-scale science, environmental chemistry and mineralogy to address fundamental and applied environmental questions. The processes being investigated include the coordination chemistry of trace, nutrient and toxicant elements on natural particles, the molecular-scale structure and reactivity of nanoscale minerals, and the mechanisms of electron-transfer reactions that contribute to the oxidation of inorganic species and organic substrates. These interfacial processes are critical to the evolution of Earth systems, including global elemental cycles, composition of natural waters, weathering and soil formation, and the release and uptake of toxicant elements into surface environments. In addition, molecular-scale investigations of chemical reactions occurring at water particle interfaces provide science-based solutions to environmental and technological challenges, including contamination of surface and ground water resources, food provision and global climate change.


Geosciences and knowledge discovery in data

GeoKDD (Mikhail Kanevski, Marj Tonini)

The main fundamental and applied topics of the research deal with a development of models, algorithms and tools for the analysis and visualization of geo- and environmental multivariate and high dimensional data using cutting-edge approaches in statistics and data mining. In particular, the following basic topics are in intensive development: models and tools for geostatistical spatio-temporal predictions and simulations, new models for space-time point processes analysis, development and application of machine learning algorithms for better understanding and predictions of complex environmental phenomena. The main applications concern environmental risks (air, water, and soil pollution), natural hazards analysis (landslides, avalanches, forest fires) and renewable energy resources assessments. Wide dissemination of the results and know-how is performed via publications and conference presentations, developed freeware software modules, given tutorials and workshops.


Geostatistical Algorithms & Image Analysis

GAIA lab (Gregoire Mariethoz)

The main research interests of GAIA reside in the development of stochastic methods that characterize the spatial and temporal variability inherent to hydrological systems. It involved the development of numerical techniques using high-order, nonparametric statistics. These enable to analyze complex datasets such as remote sensing data or the outputs of complex models (climate models or flow/transport models). The work pursued is at the frontier between Earth modeling and computer science, with a strong emphasis on stochastic models, training images and example-based modeling.

One key contribution has been the development of numerical methods that offer improved possibilities to integrate different kinds of data, especially those using the semi-qualitative concept of a training image. These include algorithms to perform reconstructions and stochastic simulations, broadly known as Multi Point Statistics.


High Mountain Geomorphology

HMG (Chrsistophe Lambiel)

Our group conducts studies aiming at a better understanding of how geomorphological processes – mainly periglacial and (para)glacial – drive landscape evolution in mountain areas and how climate change impacts these processes. A large part of our research deals with alpine permafrost and, more broadly, ground ice. For this we carry out field work studies mainly on the Western Swiss Alps, but also in the Southern Alps of New Zealand and South American Andes.

One of our objectives is to improve our knowledge on mountain permafrost distribution and to better understand the factors that control the occurrence of frozen grounds. We also investigate the interactions between (para)glacial and periglacial processes in the vicinity of small glaciers located in permafrost environments.

Our activities also concentrate on the study of slope movements in high mountain areas, by using high precision terrestrial surveying techniques (GPS/GNSS) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) platforms, as well as satellite remote sensing (e.g. InSAR data). In particular, we try to understand the factors that control rock glacier development and evolution, both at short time (current evolution) and long time (Holocene) scales.

In coordination with the Swiss Permafrost Monitoring network (PERMOS), we also monitor the thermal evolution, the rock glacier kinematics, and the ground resistivities in several sites located in the Valais Alps, to further understand permafrost evolution in the current context of climate change.


Industrial Ecology

Industrial ecology (Suren Erkman)

For the last 200 years, the process of industrialization has brought unprecedented benefits to humankind, but has also generated serious environmental concerns over the limited nature of key resources. The approach of industrial ecology constitutes an attempt to address these challenges by analogy with natural ecosystems that balance material and energy cycles. This analogy applies to industrial systems at various scales, from households to nations and the current socioeconomic system. Beyond issues related to pollution and environmental and supply chain management, a wide spectrum of topics are brought into account, ranging from finance and technology, to private and public sector involvement, global governance, social and cultural contexts.


Interactions between Climate and Earth surface processes

ICE (Frédéric Herman)

Interactions between Climate and Earth surface processes (ICE) work is in the area of Earth surface processes, glaciology, thermochronometry and numerical modeling. It involves the development of landscape evolution models, and new field and analytical methods for geomorphology, glaciology and interactions between climate, tectonics and erosion.

ICE studies the impact of Quaternary glaciations on mountain glaciations and erosion. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, which includes fieldwork, analytical work and numerical models, we collect data from mountainous areas around the world (e.g., Alps, New Zealand, Himalayas, Patagonia) to quantify how erosion processes and rates varied locally and globally during the Quaternary. In particular, we use thermochronometry to quantify erosion rate histories. The need to constrain the rate and timing of landscape evolution has led to a continuous growth of thermochronometric techniques, which quantify the cooling histories of rocks that are exhumed towards the Earth surface in response to erosion. In that framework, ICE has pioneered to the development of new thermochronometric technique based on luminescence.

ICE also puts a lot of emphasis on understanding glacial erosion processes from a mechanistic point of view. Despite decades linking glacial erosion and climate, glacial erosion processes remain poorly known. ICE devotes a lot of effort in trying to fill this gap.

Finally, ICE develops landscape evolution models within the Swiss Geocomputing Center, new field and analytical methods for geomorphology and glaciology, and the development and use of inverse methods in these topics.


Past, present and future of alpine lakes

LAKES (Marie-Elodie Perga)

The Alpine region is subject to exacerbated climate changes. Besides, alpine inland waters have long been under intense human exploitation, leading to disturbances in nutrient loadings, global or local pollutions, fishing activities and hydrological regulation for hydropower. Lakes in and around the Alps have been evolving in context of continuous and intensifying environmental changes over the last 150 years, to which they are responding through non-linear and somewhat unpredictable trajectories.

LAKES studies how lakes in and around the Alps have been responding to environmental changes. The focus is on both biogeochemistry and ecology, covering different space and time perspectives. The approach relies on the combination of paleo-ecological reconstructions from sediment archives, high- and low frequency monitoring data, laboratory experiments and modeling to mechanistically unravel alpines lakes vulnerability and responses in a context of global changes.


Quaternary environmental change

QEC (Georgina King)

Prof. King is primarily concerned with Quaternary Environmental Change (i.e. over the past 2 Ma), with a specific focus on understanding the rates of changing surface processes in response to changing climate. She has ongoing research projects in Kamchatka, the Japanese Alps, the Atacama Desert and the Himalaya, and specializes in the development of novel geochronological methods based on the trapped-charge dating techniques of luminescence and electron spin resonance dating. Developing these methods allows environmental questions to be answered that could not be constrained previously, for example determining palaeotemperature in environments where other proxy evidence is absent. Current research topics include extending the age range of trapped charge dating through the development of Electron Spin Resonance and Violet Stimulated Luminescence, the development of ultra-low temperature thermochronometry and thermometry techniques, and using spectroscopy to understand which defects control the luminescence of feldspar.

Her primary objective over the next ten years is to establish UNIL as a world-leading research center for trapped-charge dating research, with a specific emphasis on constraining environmental response to changing climate using trapped-charge thermometry and thermochronometry.


Spatially-resolved palaeo-climates and environments
SPACE (Davis Basil)
The Spatially-resolved palaeo-climates and environments group investigates large-scale changes in the Earths climate and environment during the Late Quaternary. Our aim is to develop a spatial perspective to past global change which previously has been largely restricted due to a focus on individual site records. Our approach is to integrate records from multiple-sites across the Earths surface to provide large regional to continental scale reconstructions of climate and land-cover change through time. Our objective is to use this new spatial perspective to investigate current problems in Earth system/climate modelling, such as the role of atmospheric dynamics in climate change, and the extend of prehistoric deforestation in anthropogenic land-cover change. One of the major research tools we use is fossil pollen data, which provides by far the most extensive and accesable record of Late Quaternary land-cover and climate change from across all areas of the Earths land surface. Our work involves the construction and analysis of large databases of palaeo-data, the development of multi-site/sample and spatially explicit reconstruction methodologies, and the comparison-with and evaluation-of Earth system models on which we rely to forecast our future.



Spatial Ecology

Spatial Ecology (Antoine Guisan)

The Spatial Ecology group at the University of Lausanne is specialized in predictive habitat distribution modeling, mainly at the level of species, but also sometime at the level of communities and habitat types. This approach is currently being developed and tested as tools for the management or rare and endangered species, for evaluating the invasive potential of neophytes plant species, for evaluating landscape diversity and fragmentation, as well as for preparing scenarios of climate change impact on plant species distribution, diversity and communities.

More dynamic models are also being developed for simulating the spread of species in the landscape, for instance after a climatic change or to simulate invasion processes. Finally, the set-up of permanent observation plots for monitoring the flora and fauna is another development of our group. It aims at testing, in a near or later future, the validity of our models and scenarios.

Our preferred study areas are alpine landscapes of the Swiss Prealps of Vaud and the national scale. Modeled species include Eryngium alpinum (rare and threatened) and Ambrosia artemisiifolia (invasive). We also use simulation, such as virtual species in a real landscape, to solve methodological problems and questions.


Stable isotope geochemistry

ISOLAB (Torsten Vennemann)

Stable isotope geochemistry is a powerful method to trace the origin and interactions between fluids, gases, and solids on almost all scales of Earth’s science processes, be they natural processes such as interactions between the hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere, or induced by human activities. In addition, the stable isotope compositions of liquids, gases, solids, and minerals characterize the thermodynamic properties (notably formation temperature) of compounds containing the compounds. Not surprisingly, the areas of application of stable isotope research covered by the ISOLAB research group are also very wide, including relevant research topics for “deep-earth” processes and Earth’s economic resource potential, but more importantly focussing on pressing questions concerning low temperature environmental geochemistry in a broad sense.

A good part of the research in the ISOLAB group focusses on the development of state-of-the-art analytical methods. The motivation behind this method development is, however, the application of stable isotope measurements to address pressing scientific questions relating to the importance of natural processes versus human-induced fluid(gas)-biosphere-geosphere interactions as well as the influence of climatic change on these interactions. Current research topics in collaboration with colleagues from IDYST and ISTE includes the characterization of nutrient cycling in biogeochemical and hydrologic systems, as well as tracing the origins and nutrient cycling in biogeochemical and hydrologic systems, as well as tracing the origins and distribution of contaminants within surface and sub-surface waters and a general assessment of the prevailing hydrogeological conditions that may all have an impact on the water quality.

This research on Earth surface processes is extended to investigations of Recent as well as Quaternary and older terrestrial and oceanic sedimentary records (bulk sediment, fossils, organic matter, tree-rings, etc.) that serve as archives of ecological and environmental changes as a function of (paleo-)climatic or more recent human forcing. Much older records (Paleogene-Neogene, but also Permian, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous) are also an important thrust of the research as these older records provide keys to help understand the rates and scales – global versus regional – of climatic changes and its impact on ecological-environmental changes. An important part of this research is hence dedicated to studies on biomineralization processes and the use of carbonate (ostracods, foraminifera, brachiopods) and phosphate (shark teeth, conodonts, mammal bones and teeth) biomineralized tissues, but also the use of inorganic carbonate and clay minerals for (paleo)climate and (paleo)environmental studies.


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