2022/01/06 | Research | Environment & Matter

The marine scientist and climate change

Charlotte Laufkötter is researching what is known as the biological pump, a mechanism that transports large amounts of carbon from the ocean surface into the deep sea driven by tiny plankton organisms. Her research project BioCycle aims to contribute to a better understanding of the world’s oceans and climate change.

Interview: Maura Widmer

The funding instruments Eccellenza and PRIMA of the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF enable highly qualified researchers to implement their projects within the framework of an assistant professorship at a Swiss university. In a series of interviews, we present six newly awarded researchers and their projects.

You have received an "Eccellenza Professorial Fellowship" from the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF. What does it mean to you to receive this Fellowship?
I look forward to making an important contribution to ocean research and understanding climate change over the next few years. In addition, the Eccellenza Fellowship will enable me to establish my own research group and to set priorities in the field of marine and climate research at the University of Bern.

You have been selected from the SNF for your research project «Biological carbon cycling in the future ocean (BioCycle)». What is the project about?
It concerns the biological pump, which is the downward flow of organic carbon from the upper ocean. The motor driving this pump is plankton: The microorganisms transport large amounts of the carbon dioxide they process into the deep sea and to the seabed. Without this process, the CO2 concentration in the earth’s atmosphere would be much higher.

Marine plankton communities therefore have a significant influence on our climate and also form the basis of the marine food chain. Despite its importance, the biological pump is only rudimentarily understood, and predictions of how the marine biological carbon cycle will change as a result of climate change are very uncertain. One reason is that for many oceanic regions, only very few measurements are available. Therefore, models have to estimate important parameters, which leads to inaccurate predictions. BioCycle will use data from the latest generation of Argo floats – autonomous, freely drifting measuring buoys that regularly measure temperature, oxygen content and nutrient concentration in the water. Based on this data, I will be able to explore the operation of the biological pump in more detail and thus produce more accurate model predictions of the biological pump under climate change.

What made you chose the University of Bern for your Project?
The University of Bern offers ideal conditions for my research: I have excellent connections to other climate researchers at the Institute of Climate and Environmental Physics and the Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research. In addition, two of the ocean models that are relevant for my work are already being used at the institute. This will make it easier for my employees to get started with modeling.

What is the social relevance of your project?
Climate change is undoubtedly the greatest environmental challenge of the 21st century. Although the ocean may seem far away when viewed from Switzerland, we are all affected by large-scale changes in the plankton communities – whether through their influence on climate change or through changes in the food base for edible fish. My research project will contribute to a better understanding of the ocean on a changing planet.


About Charlotte Laufkötter

Marine scientist Dr. Charlotte Laufkötter completed her doctorate in environmental physics at ETH Zurich in 2014. She then worked as a postdoc at the Universities of Princeton (2015-2017) and Bern (2017-2018). Since 2018, she has been an Ambizione Fellow at the University of Bern, where she conducts research on plastic pollution in the ocean. From summer 2022, she will work as an SNSF Eccellenza Professor at the Institute of Climate and Environmental Physics at the University of Bern. Charlotte Laufkötter conducts research on the marine carbon cycle, the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems and the plastic pollution of the ocean.

Media Releases about projects of Charlotte Laufkötter

Marine heatwaves are human made

Heatwaves in the world’s oceans have become over 20 times more frequent due to human influence. This is what researchers from the Oeschger Centre for Climate Research at the University of Bern are now able to prove. Marine heatwaves destroy ecosystems and damage fisheries.


Plastic waste in the sea mainly drifts near the coast

A study conducted at the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern provides new insights into the pollution of the world's oceans with plastic waste. The modelling shows that most of the plastic does not end up in the open ocean, but beaches or drifts in the water near the coast.


SNSF Eccellenza Professorial Fellowships

SNSF Eccellenza Professorial Fellowships are aimed at highly qualified researchers who aspire to a permanent professorship. Eccellenza supports them in achieving their goal by allowing them to lead a generously funded research project as an assistant professor with their team at a Swiss higher education institution. Eccellenza covers the grantee's salary at the local rates applicable to assistant professorships and project funds of up to 1,000,000 Swiss francs for a five-year period. In 2021, the Eccellenza program selected four researchers at the University of Bern.


SNSF PRIMA grants are aimed at excellent women researchers who show a high potential for obtaining a professorship. PRIMA grantees conduct an independent research project with their own team at least at the group leader level within a Swiss research institution. PRIMA grants cover the grantee's salary and project costs for a five-year period. With this competitive grant, PRIMA grantees can carve out a name for themselves and take the next step up the academic career ladder: a professorship. If a PRIMA grantee is appointed as a professor in Switzerland during the funding period, the remaining amount of the PRIMA grant will be transferred to the new place of work as research funds. In 2021, the PPRIMA-program selected two researchers at the University of Bern.

About the author

Maura Widmer is an intern at the Communication & Marketing Department of the University of Bern.