The Virtual Alpine Observatory (VAO)
VAO in brief
Since 19 April 2012 the “Virtual Alpine Observatory“ (VAO) has been operating as a network of European High Altitude Research Stations based in the Alps and similar mountain ranges, and now includes eight countries (Austria, France, Germany, Georgia, Italy, Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland). This cross-border and interdisciplinary cooperation has made it possible to address in great depth scientific problems relating to the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and cryosphere systems, and also the possible impact of environmental influences on health.
VAO: Network of European Alpine Observatories with interlinked infrastructure and joint research topics
Motto: Scientific cooperation – joining forces and resources to avoid duplicate work
Goal: Establishment and further development of high altitude research institutions that address pressing scientific and societal issues
Countries participating: Austria, France, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland
The Alpine region is one of the Earth’s areas that are particularly affected by climate change. In this region the temperature has risen by approx. +2.0°C, while the average increase in Europe is only about half as much, namely +1.2°C. The global mean warming is approximately +0.8°C. It is to be expected that the comparatively severe warming we are currently experiencing in the Alpine region will have an impact on the different parts of the Alpine environmental system where the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and cryosphere represent a complex system of interlinked processes. Changes in one process also have an impact on all of the other spheres. The question of how this works is a key topic of current research. Comprehensive understanding of the complex Alpine environmental system requires, most importantly, an interdisciplinary research approach.
It is therefore one goal of the VAO to bring together scientists, engineers and technicians from practically all of the aforementioned environmental research fields. This permits an investigation of environment-relevant topics from different perspectives, it creates synergies and opens up a more comprehensive approach in formulating solutions than otherwise possible. .
Examples of key topics in VAO research
- Impact of climate change on the biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and cryosphere
- Physics and chemistry of the atmosphere
- Specific impact of climate change on the Alpine region and comparable high altitude mountain ranges
- Impact of climate change on human health
- Air quality of the atmosphere
- Improvement of climate models to allow medium-term forecasts
- Effectiveness of administrative measures for reducing the impact of climate change
- General weather data and special weather phenomena
- Early detection of natural hazards
- Role played by cosmic rays (neutrons) in climate change
- Development of new/improved measurement systems
The particular vulnerability of the Alpine region to climate change represents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is first to be seen in (A) the task of providing sustainable measurements of key geophysical variables of the Alpine environmental system, these being required to address current scientific issues.
Measurements in these fields frequently have to be carried out at different sites in the Alpine region, using comparable standards with adequate precision and also synchronised, where necessary, because reliable and quality-assured observations are paramount for a sound scientific basis.
- in synchronised form coherence
- observance of common standards comparability
- over a prolonged period, if appropriate permanence
- at different sites in the Alpine region representativeness
The second challenge is seen in (B) the scientific interpretation of the acquired measurements. A comparison of this data with our current understanding of the Alpine environmental system will reveal inconsistencies and deficiencies, and this in turn can lead to additional insights and help improve our knowledge and understanding. A state-of-the-art IT infrastructure, the so-called Alpine Environmental Data Analysis Centre (AlpEnDAC) ensures that the measurements taken at the various sites are easily and conveniently accessible and exchangeable within the VAO, according to international standards, irrespective of where the scientists or engineers are located („data-on-demand“). Furthermore, it will be possible to access data available elsewhere (e.g. satellite-based measurements). The core of the AlpEnDAC is formed by high-power computing centres such as the LRZ-Supercomputing Centre in Garching and networked data centres like the WMO/ICSU World Data Centre for Remote Sensing of the Atmosphere in Oberpfaffenhofen. Through these partners other initiatives can be supported, such as the optimisation of code numbers (e.g. parallelisation), and in this way analysis work can be further enhanced. In addition to this, AlpEnDAC develops tools designed by the scientists and engineers to support data interpretation and help speed up the process. Besides enabling data visualisation and the combination of different datasets, this “toolbox” of the AlpEnDAC also includes complex numeric computer models (e.g. trajectory and air quality models, meteorological models etc.) that can be assembled and used by the scientists as required („computing-on-demand“). These functions of the AlpEnDAC provide “Services“ for the scientific community and support scientists in their research activities.
It is, however, also the goal of the VAO to (C) develop and operate services that are directed to the outside world where they can help face up to major challenges confronting society today (societal benefit areas). This is the third challenge that is explained in greater detail below.
The impact resulting from observation, gained knowledge and predictability is the characteristic element of the VAO. This triad forms the indispensable basis for generating know-how that can then be used in action to be taken at political level.
Key topics of the VAO are: (i) Atmospheric variability and trends, (ii) Alpine environment: hazards and risks, (iii) Alpine water balance and (iv) Environment and high altitude medicine. In another field, work has driven the further development of infrastructure and the development of new technologies for climate and environmental research.
Atmospheric variability and trends
The atmosphere is a complex system. It is characterised by a multitude of chemical, dynamic and radiation-related processes. Our knowledge of these processes is still incomplete. Forecasts on climate development are therefore still relatively unreliable. Improved measurement and analysis techniques will help to close this gap.
Alpine environment: hazards and risks
The impact of climate change on the biosphere and geosphere in high altitude areas is to be determined. Moreover, an investigation is carried out on the influence of solar eruptions on cosmic radiation in the Alpine region.
Alpine water balance
The aim of this key topic is to acquire more expertise on the Alpine water balance in order to be able to estimate the future availability of water. Another priority is to study environmental radioactivity in the Alpine region, caused by snow and rainfall.
Environment and high altitude medicine
Persistent hazardous substances, particles or pollen, and also meteorological parameters such as temperature or humidity, can have a negative impact on human health in Alpine regions. They can, for instance, lead to allergies, respiratory diseases or cardiovascular diseases. Long-term studies, analyses, studies and recommendations for appropriate action are therefore of paramount importance.
Development of specific infrastructure & technologies
Environmental sciences, particularly research at high altitudes, require very specific technological solutions. That is why development focuses on new sensor technologies or measuring platforms (e.g. UAVs etc.), hardware and software infrastructures, efficient concepts for (meta) data storage, analysis and visualisation etc. .
Key research topics:
- Atmospheric variability and trends
- Alpine environment: hazards and risks
- Alpine water balance
- Environment and health
- Technology & development
Participating observatories and institutions
With the already well established institutions in the Alpine and Prealpine regions, such as the observatories Sonnblick (Austria), Jungfraujoch/Gornergrat (Switzerland), Schneefernerhaus (Germany), Otlica (Slovenia), EURAC mountain observatories (Italy) and OSUG (France) and its associated facilities, outstanding research infrastructures have joined up to form the VAO. Other institutions such as ALOMAR (Norway) and Abastumani (Georgia) are associated with the VAO based on their shared thematic focus. The above mentioned observatories and institutions are assisted by the LRZ-Supercomputing Centre (Germany) and the WMO/ICSU World Data Centre for Remote Sensing of the Atmosphere (Germany).The VAO is always open to new partners and is set for continued expansion in the coming years.
|Forschungsstationen/ -einrichtungen im VAO
|Umweltforschungsstation Schneefernerhaus (UFS)
|Observatoire des Sciences de l’Univers de Grenoble (OSUG)
|Abastumani Astrophysical Observatory
|Institut für Angewandte Fernerkundung (EURAC)
|Hochalpine Forschungsstationen Jungfraujoch & Gornergrat (HFSJG)
Added value of the VAO
Besides the partners being able to exchange data among themselves (and with others), the VAO also supports the consistent further and new development of measuring equipment and sensory systems in order to capture the most extensive and accurate range of detectable geophysical key parameters possible, also using state-of-the-art science and technology. In this process, the innovative “open-hardware“ approach is to be applied, using established and successful open developments already known from the IT field. Shared and coordinated developments avoid duplicate work. In the development and testing of new technologies for sensor systems and measurement platforms, cooperation - particularly with the industry - is to be intensified, where expedient (dual use), ideally constituting a win-win situation. In this way, resources are optimally used and advanced developments can be implemented in a shorter period of time, ensuring international competitiveness of European research and development in environmental fields.
The scientific and technical expertise gathered under the umbrella of the VAO can also contribute towards meeting the major challenges of our times (“Societal Benefit Areas”). For instance, by helping to create a better understanding of the interaction between health and the environment (personal heath compass). Another possibility is to use the VAO for permanent quality assurance of satellite-based measurements, especially in the context of the European COPERNICUS programme. Here interactions with the European GALILEO programme are also conceivable (“service-on-demand“). Political decision makers and the society in general will thus be able to draw on the pool of expertise provided by the VAO.
The VAO thrives on the networking and consistent exchange between the partners and the respectively connected community of scientists and engineers. Another essential element of the VAO is therefore the regular organisation of a “VAO Symposium“ to share know-how and experiences, which also offers scientific and technical young talent a platform where they can network and present themselves. It is this lively and constant exchange that forms a breeding ground, also for shaping new creative and innovative ideas that can then be implemented in shared networks.
The VAO is governed by a steering committee – the VOA Board – composed of representatives of the respective institutions in the partner countries. The steering committee normally meets once a year.
Political and societal integration
The VAO is part of the Alpine Convention in which the Contracting Parties have agreed to promote and harmonise research work and systematic observations in close cooperation that will serve a better understanding of the interaction between region, economy and environment in the Alps and help to forecast future developments. As next steps, the networking of the platforms „ABIS/SOIA“ (System for Observation and Information on the Alps of the Alpine Convention) and the AlpEnDAC of the VAO is to be maximised wherever technically feasible.
VAO supports the goals of the Alpine Convention:
Art.3: “Cooperate in the carrying out of research activities and scientific assessments; develop joint or complementary systematic monitoring programs; harmonize research, monitoring and related data-acquisition activities.”
12/13 March 2015: Resolution of the permanent committee of the Alpine Convention: “…supports plans by the High Altitude Research Stations to intensify the already launched cooperation projects for a “Virtual Alpine Observatory“ and to develop it into a center for climate and environmental research in the Alps.”
The VAO is, moreover, one of the tools to be used for implementing the Alpine Strategy of the EU. This strategy is aimed to cover the political topics of economic growth, innovation; mobility and environment as well as energy. The main goal of the strategy is to ensure that this region remains one of Europe’s most attractive spaces, leveraging on its benefits and initiating a sustainable, innovative development in a European context. One of the tasks in this respect is to manage climate change and its consequences. The VAO delivers a scientific basis for addressing this task.
VAO also supports the European Strategy for the Alpine Region (EUSALP):
To improve risk management and to a better manage climate chance including major natural risk prevention; recommended project: “Set up a Virtual Alpine Observatory which brings together Alpine research centers and helps to improve prognosis and common efforts in the research on climate change adaptation, concerning areas like atmosphere, Alpine environment and water balance.”
In addition, the VAO with Georgia as an associated member also supports the objectives of the Eastern Partnership, a subproject of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP): A joint statement regarding environment and climate change was drawn up in the first meeting on 18 October 2016 Ministers of the Environment of EU member states and the Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Republic of Moldova and Ukraine). The common goal was formulated to intensify cooperation in the field of environmental and climate policy. The VAO which is also open to further Eastern countries is contributing to this goal as well.
VAO contributes to the Eastern Partnership goals:
“That environmental and climate challenges are transboundary interdependent by nature, and therefore require a holistic approach to address them. Given the geographic proximity of the EU and EaP countries and their shared environmental assets, strengthened transboundary cooperation and joint action on air, forests, land and soil, nature and biodiversity and water resources, including seas, are needed;”
“The need for cooperation among and the active engagement of, governments, local administrations, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders to address environmental and climate challenges;”