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Young scientist awarded Michelson Prize

During a celebratory colloquium on 18th June at Potsdam University, the climate scientist Kirsten Zickfeld from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) was awarded the Michelson Prize of the Faculty of Mathematics and Science. Zickfeld was awarded the prize for her outstanding doctoral thesis which investigated abrupt climate changes and their relevance for political action.

Almost without exception, scientists agree that the activities of humankind are influencing our climate. Further increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, for example, is expected to lead to a steady rise in global mean temperature and of the sea level. Less well known and less intensively researched are the risks associated with climate changes which take place not at a steady rate but can occur relatively suddenly.

In her thesis, Zickfeld investigated two important components of the climate system which heavily influence the climate in two large, well-populated regions of the Earth: the North Atlantic Current, which is partially responsible for western Europe's mild climate, and the monsoon, which supplies vital rainfall to the Indian subcontinent. Zickfeld posed a central question: could human interventions in the climate system, such as emission of greenhouse gases and aerosols, cause sudden changes to these phenomena?

Zickfeld's investigations show that global climatic warming could lead to a weakening - or even the failure - of the North Atlantic circulation and to a relatively sudden fall in temperature in North-West Europe. Moreover, the further increase in air pollution through aerosols arising from fires and use of fossil-fuels could lead to the sudden failure of the Indian summer monsoon.

What does the danger of abrupt climate changes mean as regards political action? If, for example, we want to keep the risk of the failure of the North Atlantic Current low, then in the next few decades global emission of greenhouse gases must sink appreciably in comparison to a reference path projecting a continuation of today's emissions ("business as usual").

The Michelson Prize has been awarded in honour of the famous physicist (1852-1931) by the Faculty of Mathematics and Science of Potsdam University since 1997. It is given to members of Potsdam University who produce outstanding doctoral theses on subjects connected with mathematics or the natural sciences. At the celebratory colloquium on 18th June 2004 at the Golm Science Campus another scientist as well as Kirsten Zickfeld was awarded the highly-regarded prize.

Contact:
Dr. Kirsten Zickfeld, kirsten.zickfeld@pik-potsdam.de, Tel. +49/331/288-2518

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