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Meet the Grantee: Jan Blahůt

Steady as a rock? - A Czech-German cooperation to determine the influence of changing temperature patterns on rock strength

Climate change does not only affect animals and plants but something that might seem solid and insensitive at first glance: stone. Short Term Grantee Dr Jan Blahůt and his host Professor Oliver Sass used a climate chamber to explore the behaviour of rock mass under changing climatic conditions and are discussing actual and future hazards: from rock fall, nationalism and the energy crisis.

Dr Jan Blahůt

What are the foci of your joint research funded by the Short Term Grant?

Jan Blahůt: Our joint research focuses on the behaviour of rocks in changing climatic conditions. We expect changes in temperature and humidity to occur worldwide in the coming decades. This will affect the weathering conditions and consequently the stability of rocks. For this research we use a climate chamber to simulate future conditions together with infrared cameras and in-situ loggers. This will ultimately lead to an understanding of whether ongoing climate change will increase the risk of rockfall in Central Europe.

Oliver Sass: Spatial distribution of temperatures on different scales is still an unsolved problem in research on rock weathering. Joint research using infrared cameras and temperature sensors will advance the understanding of small scale temperature fluctuation and rock moisture distribution.

In what way is your work interdisciplinary, and what does interdisciplinarity mean to you in academic work and life?

JB: Interdisciplinarity is an essential part of our research, because we study rock mass behaviour at different spatial and temporal scales. Interdisciplinarity also presents an important challenge in finding a common language between geographers, engineering geologists or geotechnical engineers. In addition, communicating research results to stakeholders (municipalities, government agencies, etc.) is a major challenge. Despite some of the aforementioned problems arising from interdisciplinary research, it is also a good experience for personal life, as one can better understand different attitudes and perspectives on problems.

OS: To me, interdisciplinarity also includes crossing the barriers between natural sciences and humanities (e.g. between physical and human geography). Even if the current cooperation is clearly on the natural science side without involving social sciences, I found the very different perspectives on a problem always very stimulating.

What is in your opinion the future of your field, and in what way can research on the stability of rocks contribute to meeting the urgent challenges of our time?

JB: As has already been said, our research is very important because it is strongly influenced by ongoing climate change. From my point of view, it is very important to answer questions related to future hazards and risks from rockfalls, especially in densely populated central Europe.

OS: I explicitely support Jan Blahůt's statement. In alpine areas, rockfall risk is strongly increasing due to permafrost melt, and monitoring and early warning tools are urgently needed. Our work contributes to the understanding of decay and destabilisation processes.

What does international research mobility mean to you?

JB: International research mobility is an essential part of science in the 21st century. Personally, I cannot imagine doing significant research with a broad scope without international collaboration and mobility. Covid has really affected our lives, but I think scientists have been able to cope better with this situation because they were used to working online more than other professions. Personally, I think that resurgent nationalism has no place in Europe and the world. In Czechia, it is largely induced from the outside, by non-democratic regimes (i.e. Russia and China).

OS: I feel that international research mobility (as well as student exchanges and other mobility programmes) can significantly contribute to defeating nationalism and authoritarian systems. This is one of the most important issues in the current global crises - without stronger international networking, we will fail in overcoming them.

How did the current challenges influence your cooperation?

JB: Fortunately, Covid didn't affect my collaboration that much, because only some conferences were postponed or online. However, I see a more difficult challenge in the current energy crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both may affect science funding due to the induced economic crisis, at least in Czechia. And science is usually the first to suffer from budget cuts.

OS: I support Jan Blahůt's point. Also in Germany (concretely at the University of Bayreuth), economic pressure from the energy crisis already leads to significant cuts and restrictions of further development.
The Covid crisis has clearly affected my academic exchange as many conferences were cancelled and the online execution is far less effective for networking and exchange. However, our current cooperation was not significantly affected.

The Grantee and his Host:

Dr Jan Blahůt is an expert in Landslide processes and Landslide Risk Reduction. He serves as an editor for the journals Landslides, Acta Geodynamica et Geomaterialia and Geoenvironmental Disasters. His research covers two areas: (i) megalandslides on volcanic islands and (ii) rock stability under changing climate. He also teaches Dynamic Engineering Geology at the Charles University in Prague and is a tutor of several bachelor, master and doctoral theses.

Prof Oliver Sass is a professor for geomorphology focusing on a broad range of topics: (i) weathering of natural rock and artificial stonework, with a specific focus on rock moisture; (ii) sediment distribution and budgets in fluvial systems; (iii) human-environment interaction including wildfires and other natural hazards. Besides his research-guided teaching he is strongly committed to undergraduate teaching, e.g. beginner's lectures across the whole spectrum of geography. Mobility was very important in his career as he has worked at the Universities of Munich, Augsburg, Cologne, Heidelberg, Oxford (UK), Innsbruck, Graz and Bayreuth. 

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