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PAGE21 Researcher Profile:Thomas Schöngaßner

Last but not least of PAGE21 young researchers' profile is the profile of Thomas Schöngaßner from Max - Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany. Thomas specializes in implementation of thermokarst processes into JSBACH, the land surface component of the global climate model MPI – ESM.
Thomas Schöngaßner at his office in Max-Planck Institute for Meteorology in HamburgThomas Schöngaßner at his office in Max-Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg
Thomas Schöngaßner
Max-Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg
Research Field:
Implementation of thermokarst processes into JSBACH, the land surface component of the global climate model MPI-ESM.
How are you affiliated with the PAGE21 project / what parts of your research will be a direct input to PAGE21?
Permafrost related processes are still rudimentary represented in global climate models (GCM) and Earth system models (ESM). New process need to be included to improve the climate model performance in high latitudes. Since permafrost areas inherit a high amount of deposited soil organic carbon, a destabilization would lead to a global-scale feedback mechanism comprising interactions between snow, permafrost, hydrology, and ecosystems.

Therefore I try to include thermokarst processes into JSBACH, the land-surface component of MPI-ESM. Initially, a 1-D scheme of thermal dynamics will be implemented into JSBACH, which fits into very recent developments with regards to permafrost melting and freezing and a dynamical wetland scheme. Structural improvements and new parametrizations of the model are required with regard to heat and water flow (physical processes) and carbon and nitrogen dynamics (bio-geochemical processes). The implementation of a thermokarst module is one task within WP6 of PAGE21 and is a joint activity between MPI-M Hamburg and MPI-BGC Jena.
Thomas presenting his work Thomas presenting his work What is the current challenge within this topic?
Thermokarst changes are coupled thermal-hydrological processes, which lead to an enhanced thawing of ice-rich permafrost on local-to-regional scales, where the soil structure is characterized by segregated ice and large ice-wedges. Thermokarst affected surfaces are characterized by a pattern of lakes, hummocks, and marshy hollows. The physical and geological evolution of single thermokarst lakes is well understood and can be applied on thermokarst affected terrain. The main challenge will be to describe the small scale process with a spatial extend of 10-1000m for GCM applications on ESM grid scale. Therefore parametrizations are required and thresholds of climate and soil parameters have to be found, which trigger new thermokarst events.
How did it happen that you became a researcher?
I always liked the nature around us and wanted to understand the processes which are going on there. For me, it is fascinating to see snow coming in late autumn and melting away again in early spring. It was actually very natural to be interested since I always looked forward to go skiing and wondered how long the ski-season may last this time. Also how climate is influencing the everyday life and which differences can arise due to that has inspired me.
Why do you like being a researcher?
I like to think about how to solve new problems and questions. For that you can learn a lot about the processes and mechanisms, which are standing behind them. Then it is always interesting to play around with models and to see how new methods work out and if they can solve the questions.
What do you like most in being a researcher?
Playing around with data and making nice pictures of the results. Running models with many different and also extreme values of input parameters and investigate the range of results, which they can serve.
How a typical working day looks like?
Usually I am sitting in front of the computer in my office, looking out of the window, and going for lunch to the canteen nearby. In between I derive concepts, write scripts, test models, and discuss the results with colleagues.
Funniest response ever when you told somebody that you are a "polar researcher"?
Actually, I am not seeing myself as a polar researcher, because I usually stay in my office and calculate data, which in our case are from the Arctic. But to become a polar researcher, I think you need to research on site, investigate the processes directly, and experience living there.
What are your plans for the upcoming three / five years?
To write a thermokarst module, which is hopefully not too far away from reality. It should should also satisfy researchers from other disciplines like from geology and geochemistry and also the field people, who know the heterogeneity on site. I would also like to visit field sites in the Arctic one time to experience the real physical world and what is going on there.

Most interesting experience / occurrence so far in your career? What are the challenges in the cooperation with the field people? Usual response when you tell somebody that you are researcher in the field of modeling?
Usually people ask me, if I am going to go there. But as a modeler this is not so easy. I hope that I can visit one site one time to investigate the ongoing processes in the Arctic and to experience the real world.