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People in the Spotlight: Austrian Scientist of the Year 2012, Plant Scientist Georg Grabherr

bridges vol. 37, May 2013 / Feature Articles

By Elisabeth Ossberger

Georg GrabherrEvery year, the Austrian Club of Education and Science Journalists elects one outstanding researcher as Austrian Scientist of the Year. The 2012 award was given to plant scientist and ecologist Georg Grabherr. Aside from recognition for their exceptional research, this award especially honors Austrian scientists who have placed a special emphasis on explaining their research to a broader nonscientific audience, thus improving the public's perception and understanding of scientific research in Austria.

Georg Grabherr, who is deputy director of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Mountain Research (IGF) at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and former head of Department of Conservation Biology, Vegetation Ecology and Landscape Ecology at the University of Vienna, can look back at more than four decades of a successful research career. Having worked in different fields such as the description, analysis, and classification of vegetation (first inventory of Austrian plant communities), alpine ecology (production biology; tourists' impact), integrity, e.g., the hemeroby of ecosystems, especially in forests, and climate research on mountain summits (at the low-temperature limits of plant life), Grabherr has generated over 300 publications. His first paper, on "Primary Production and Gains on a re-vegetated Ski-run," was published in 1976. Now, at the age of 66, he doesn't seem to have slowed down: in 2012, he and his colleagues published two articles in Nature Climate Change and another in Science.

Grabherr's research is well known beyond Austria's borders. His ability to explain complex scientific topics in an understandable and clear manner has led to his multiple activities on advisory councils and commissions in the political and scientific realms, such as being the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of the World Wildlife Fund Austria, or a member of the Advisory Board of International Association of Vegetation Science. Grabherr says about himself: "First of all, I am a plant scientist – specializing in vegetation ecology. I am one of the few humans who know the green world in very close detail, the flora and vegetation throughout. I had the luck to enter the fascinating world of plants, that's what I want to communicate and protect." Born in 1946 in Bregenz in Vorarlberg, a small federal state of Austria close to the Swiss border, Grabherr describes himself as having been a child lazy to the bone, but talented, who'd rather skip school and go on outdoor trips to analyze plants. Later on, he studied biology at the University of Innsbruck. "When I entered university, I already had an exceptional knowledge of plants. And I continued to explore plants." He received his Ph.D. in 1975, summa cum laude.

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Most exciting moments in life are when you find the unexpected ...

Grabherr and his special grassFor his doctoral dissertation, Grabherr performed eco-physiological standard measurements and analyzed the CO2 gas exchange of Loiseleuria procumbens, a creeping dwarf shrub that grows on the Patscherkofel, a 2.200-meter mountain in the Tyrol. His work took four years. He remembers: "My mother once asked me: 'You have been working already for four years on this plant, can't you once bring it with you and show it to me?' When I did this, she clapped her hands over her head and said: 'How can it take four years to study such a little plant?' I replied to her that I could even analyze it for much longer! This work was very exciting for me because, when I measured the CO2 impact on plants, I could already see what was only discussed much later in the scientific community as the CO2 effect. It has a tremendous effect when you put CO2 in a chamber with a plant and some water. Photosynthesis starts immediately, the plant starts a biochemical process, absorbs the light, and switches the carbon dioxide into glucose, and it starts to grow! Some people when they look at shrubs, they get the impression that those plants are like plastic. But for me it was fantastic! I got an insight into their physiology, the functioning of plants. The most exciting times in life are such moments, when you find the unexpected, which you cannot see immediately."

By 1986, after finishing his Ph.D., Grabherr received job offers from various universities in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. He decided to follow the call to Vienna, and became head of the Department of Conservation Biology, Vegetation Ecology and Landscape Ecology at the University of Vienna. At the institute, he is still very well known for his introductory lectures on ecology and specific ecological systems, which he loved to give for many years. As often as possible, Grabherr included his students in his own research projects. He is very proud of the 300 students who graduated during his time as head of the institute.

Globetrotter Grabherr One of his best-known research projects is GLORIA, which Grabherr started in 2000, together with two of his former students, Michael Gottfried and Harald Pauli. GLORIA stands for Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments. It is an international research network, primarily funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, as well as support from some Swiss Foundations.

Being interested in the effects of climate change on vegetation, Grabherr started a research project in 1989 that later turned into GLORIA. "It was all built on an observation about the Little Ice Age in the first half of the 19th century. In 1834 the Swiss scientist Oswald Heer had already noticed the different plants at different heights on the mountain Piz Linard in Switzerland, and he prepared a monograph on plants of the Swiss Alps. Some years later, Heer's account of plants was repeated and, in the 1950s, Josias Braun-Blanquet published a paper on 100 years of species change at Piz Linard, which showed that plants were pushed upwards on the mountain due to a changing climate. Also, the Austrian scientist Raimund von Klebelsberg had already recognized in a 1913 paper that there were changes in the vegetation after the little ice age. So this year, we can count 100 years of climate change research in Austria!"

In 1986, while Grabherr was working with IIASA, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analyses in Laxenburg, he remembered the paper from Braun-Blanquet. Along with Allen M. Solomon, a specialist in climate change models, Grabherr organized a 1988 meeting on the high alpine floral change and started computer modeling about the monitoring of specific plants under the impact of global warming at the Hochschwab. He involved two students in this work, Gottfried and Pauli, and together they started to work on the floral change in the mountains. GLORIA was born.


GLORIA – Plants climbing up to the Sky

The idea was that it is easier to examine the consequences of global warming on vegetation close to the frost line of the summits of the world, where it should be possible to see a difference in floral distribution over the long term. Plants with a preference for low temperatures would climb up the mountain due to global warming, starting a dynamic in which upper plants could be endangered and perhaps get lost, while the lower ones would climb higher and possibly block some others.

"This research setting utilizes the results of a natural experiment on the mountains, so we can measure the impact of global warming without direct impact of humans. GLORIA is able to prove that warmer conditions have consequences for the vegetation." Grabherr explained. "The alpine grass Krummsegge, for instance, helps to keep the soil together, so we had better be alert if this grass disappears!" With long-term measurements at hundreds of observation fields, Grabherr and his colleagues were able to prove that the number of plants best adapted to cold temperatures declined, or specific species were endangered and disappeared, although the total number of different species increases. This initiates vegetational trends, which cannot be predicted.

GLORIA started in Europe with some 10 partners and grew into a successful global-wide program with about 115 long-term observation sites, and some 380 researchers on five continents. So an indicator for global warming was established and is monitored in a worldwide comparative long-term program. The sites cover mountains having completely different vegetation zones: from tropical, desert-like, mediterranean, humid, temperate, boreal, and arctic vegetation zones. The Austrian team with Grabherr at the helm initiated the project, and is still in charge of the coordination among all research sites and the administration of the collective database. In cooperation with the European Environmental Agency, a handbook was developed about the methods for the measurements and delivered in 2004. Floral change as an indicator of global warming is clearly adopted nowadays as a scientific argument in the literature of climate change, even by climate-change skeptics. The discussions on climate change over the past few years already mention winner and loser regions all over the world. While the mountains of Spain, for example, will start to erode and glaciers will start to melt, some northern countries with rough climates and an average temperature increase of 2° Celsius are predicted to be cultivating grain and other crops in the future.

Grabherr with US scientists webIn North America alone, more than 20 research sites have been established so far, for instance: in the Rocky Mountains, Niwot Ridge and Wind River Mountains in Colorado and the Glacier National Park in Montana, at Selawik Wilderness in Alaska, at Dunderberg in the Sierra Nevada, at Great Basin National Park in Nevada, at the White Inyo Mountains in California, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, the Canadian Coast Range, Cariboo Mountains, and Vancouver Island.

Grabherr says thoughtfully: "GLORIA provokes. In the beginning, our work had been belittled as 'flower counting,' like some nice but not-taken-too-seriously research. In the informal ranking of the natural sciences, the discipline of plant science resides at a very low level. But we do cheap, time-efficient, and scientifically sound research with our continental and global-wide approach in comparative ecology. We involve countries and people in our network, who were not part of the scientific discussion before, and thus help with scientific capacity building. Native people in Bolivia, for instance, people from Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, as well as from Nepal, China, Pakistan, Bhutan, or Uganda."

The Grabherr Family – meet the biologists

Grabherr in garden Grabherr himself lives with his wife, who is also a botanist, in a house in the north of Vienna – together with their extended family of two cats, a dog, two horses, and a wonderful garden that contains about 300 species. The couple also has a grown son who followed his parents' calling and became a biology teacher. In 2011 Grabherr had to retire from the University due to Parkinson's disease. While he had to quit teaching his beloved introductory classes in ecology, he still remains very active on the research side and as an advisor for councils and governments. The Austrian Minister of Science and Research, Karlheinz Töchterle, once described the Austrian Scientist of the Year 2012: "I met Georg Grabherr as an engaged ecologist, who explains the value and importance of his research in an exciting but unagitated and coherent way. He lives for ecology and for his plants. He not only has a green thumb, but also a green heart."


This article is dedicated by the author to Michael Gottfried, who had a stroke last November and since then remains comatose. Gottfried, together with Grabherr and Pauli, initiated GLORIA.


About the Author: Elisabeth Ossberger wrote this article during her time, from January to March 2013, spent at the Office of Science and Technology at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC. In her daily work in Vienna at the Austrian Federal Department of Transport, Innovation and Technology, she is responsible for public support measures to enforce the capabilities of the aviation manufacturing industry in Austria, the associated universities, and the R&D-research institutions.