Selecting Essential Climate Variables for Mountain Observations
MRI News
article written by MRI
30.09.19 | 02:09

The GEO-GNOME Workshop ‘Essential Climate Variables for Observations in Mountains’ took place at the University of Bern in Switzerland, 24-26 June 2019. The workshop brought together experts from different fields of mountain research to consider a list of essential variables that need to be measured to understand elevation dependent warming and related mountain processes.

Addressing the importance of climate as one key driver of environmental change in mountains, with relevant consequences for social-ecological systems, is a key activity of the Group on Earth Observations Global Network for Observations and Information in Mountain Environments (GEO GNOME).

Given the preexisting initiatives on essential climate variables, an opportunity was identified to focus attention on mountain-specific key variables, thereby allowing for understanding and tracking changes and their consequences in mountains. With support from the European Space Agency (ESA), Future Earth (FE), and the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI), the 2019 GEO-GNOME workshop aimed to identify and select those essential climate variables (ECVs) required in high elevation contexts for the monitoring and better understanding of ‘mountain climate change’ and related processes, including considerations for integration between in-situ measurements, EO satellite data, and modelling. The existing WMO GCOS catalogue of global ECVs was used as initial basis for compiling a list of essential mountain variables. The ESA’s existing datasets on ECVs within its Climate Change Initiative (CCI) program were also considered.

Identifying key processes and ECVs for observations in mountains

To set the context for the goals of the workshop, the first day provided an opportunity to reflect on processes specific for mountain environmental systems and on the concept of ECVs, with diverse input from the participants. Talks on processes in mountain systems were given by: Nick Pepin (University of Portsmouth) on Elevation-Dependent Warming, Richard Essery (University of Edinburgh) on changing snow and ice, Christophe Randin (University of Lausanne) on ecological changes, Xiaofeng Li (Newcastle University) on hydrological processes, and Paolo Cristofanelli (CNR) on changes in atmospheric composition and related transport processes. Yaniss Guigoz and Gregory Giuliani (University of Geneva) also presented their current work on essential variables at national and regional scales, showing applications on the use of data cubes.

Selecting key processes and identifying related ECVs was achieved by dividing participants into four thematic break-out groups: Cryosphere, Hydrosphere, Anthroposphere, and Biosphere. After deciding on key processes in the given ‘sphere’ in the mountain context, groups identified and agreed on the importance of the variables essential to understanding change in these process areas based on the GCOS list of ECVs.

ECV Workshop Poster
ECV Workshop Group Discussion









Left: An example of a poster filled out by the Anthroposphere Group, with colored dots presenting the rated importance of an ECV (columns) for a specific process (rows). Right: The Ecosphere Group discussing the rating of ECVs.

Considering data collection protocols

Talks during the second day of the workshop expanded the topic from mountain processes and ECVs into data collection protocols and frameworks in mountain environments. Maria Shahgedanova (University of Reading) presented the status of the MRI Mountain Observatories Working Group, and Nick Pepin (University of Portsmouth) discussed the next steps from Elevation-Dependent Warming to understanding Elevation Dependent Climate Change and the potential of a transect network of in-situ climate data over elevation gradients (Unified High Elevation Observing Platform, UHOP). Further, Elisa Palazzi (ISAC-CNR) gave an overview of how climate change in mountains regions is seen through global and regional models, Marc Zebisch (EURAC) continued on Earth observations and their use in mountain areas, and Sven Kotlarski (MeteoSwiss) discussed the role of mountain observations/models for climate services.

The best possible ways of collecting data for pre-selected key processes and the corresponding ECVs identified earlier were discussed in two groups. Further on, the adequate spatial and temporal resolution for each data source were defined in order to feed into a standard protocol for data collection in mountain environments.

Mountain-specific ECVs

The key outcome of this workshop is a selection of ECVs required to observe the processes of elevation-dependent climate change in mountains – naming over 100 specific ECV products. These can be categorised under 45 ECVs (following the GCOS system). All the ECV products named are relevant for the monitoring and understanding of at least one key mountain process. Land surface temperature, precipitation, albedo, snow cover, wind, and water vapor were the ECVs that ranked as being most important for mountain processes across the four spheres. The existing GCOS list of global ECVs covers most of the selected variables, but an in-depth understanding of mountain-specific processes also requires inclusion of new variables. Preliminary comparison with the ESA CCI datasets shows that for 39 of the ECV products considered some data is already available through the CCI initiative. Further consideration of the data criteria (including required spatial and temporal scales) for each selected ECV is needed, however, for a proper gap analyses for mountain-specific data needs.

A peer-reviewed publication presenting this selection of mountain specific ECVs is envisaged. In addition, a data collection protocol with identified existing data-sources and criteria for required data quality (particularly the spatial and temporal resolution required) for selected key processes was produced. There are huge observational and information gaps in mountain environments, and agreeing on joint protocols and data resolution needed for each relevant process would allow for filling these gaps.

Encouraged by the experiences and results of this workshop, the work on mountain-specific essential variables will continue, and a workshop to identify essential biodiversity and societal variables in the mountain context is foreseen for February 2020. More information on this event will be available at via the MRI homepage in October 2019.

View and download the full Workshop Report.

Visiting the top of Europe: An excursion to the Jungfrau research station

After the official end of the workshop programme, participants had a chance to visit the Junfraujoch Research Station, where they were accompanied by Silvio Decurtins, President of the Junfraujoch Research Station. Decurtins introduced the guests to the history and infrastructure of the station, and guided the group through the different sectors and laboratories of the station. One of the custodians of the station, Ruedi Käser, introduced the group to his daily work and life at the station, with insights into daily weather observations. Atmospheric scientist Ginette Roland gave a fascinating presentation on the key findings in atmospheric and radiation sciences made at the Jungfraujoch over past decades.

The research station was inaugurated in 1931 and is owned by the International Foundation High Altitude Research Stations Jungfraujoch and Gornergrat (HFSJG). The station is located at an elevation of 3466 meters above sea level in the Bernese Oberland, and is a key piece of infrastructure in interdisciplinary climate and environmental research and among mountain observatories. In around 50 projects, the station measures over 100 different variables, collecting data for several international observation networks. Research topics vary from meteorology and the monitoring of radiation balance and atmosphere to glaciology and medical research. The Jungfraujoch Research Station welcomes new initiatives and collaborations. For further information on the research station and contact details, please refer to the Junfraujoch Research Station website.

Jungfraujoch 1

Jungfraujoch 2








Left: Participants of the excursion pictured at the Jungfraujoch with station staff members. Right: Ginette Roland has been working at the Jungfraujoch Research Station since the 1950s.

The MRI wishes to thank all workshop participants for their engagement and critical input, and we look forward to further collaboration. We also thank Future Earth and ESA for their financial support for this workshop.

The Group on Earth Observations Global Network for Observations and Information in Mountain Environments (GEO GNOME) is co-led by the MRI and ISAC-CNR.

Upcoming GEO-GNOME events and activities:

  • GEO Week 2019 – Ministerial summit | Canberra, Australia | 4-11 November 2019
  • GEO-GNOME Workshop: Essential Mountain Biodiversity and Societal Variables | Zürich, Switzerland | 21-22 February 2020
  • GEO-GNOME Essential Mountain Variables Session at World Biodiversity Forum | Davos, Switzerland | February 2020 (TBC)
  • GEO-GNOME UHOP Workshop | (Date and Location TBC)