What will happen to our glaciers? Interview with Francesco Ficetola, winner of an ERC grant
Among the 33 Italians who have won a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council in 2017, Francesco Ficetola of the University of Milan is the only one who has been awarded this grant in the macro-sector of Life Sciences.
Over the next five years, his studies will focus on glaciers and the consequences of their retreat: a research area with a strong impact for society that Europe has decided to fund with almost 2 million euro.
Doctor Ficetola, what is your research project in detail?
Global warming has been causing a progressive melting of glaciers and their retreat has left large areas free where life has started to develop. My study aims at understanding how bacteria, plants and animals colonize these areas, as well as the environmental dynamics that lead to the creation of ecosystems full of biodiversity in areas where there was nothing before. As observed also in the Alps, when a glacier retreats, it leaves only gravel and rocks behind, which start to progressively populate with forms of life until they end up with hosting, over a period of one or one and a half centuries, even forests with firs as high as 20 metres.
How will you study these forms of life?
We will use a very innovative technique based on the analysis of environmental DNA. Traditionally, the study of the organisms living in these areas was done by studying each single living species, and this would take years of research for each single glacier. The environmental DNA technique uses samples of soil and analyses the traces of DNA found in the soil belonging to all species of animals and vegetables that have come into contact with that soil. This will allow us to study a number of glaciers all over the world, from the Andes to the Asian mountains, covering the entire Alpine arc with the biological analysis of about 20 glaciers.
Why is it so important to know the biological dynamics of these soils?
This research project could have an important impact on society, as well as on science. In the future, deglaciated areas will become very large and geological risks will increase since a receding glacier leaves loose sediment behind. The fact that vegetation can grow in these areas greatly increases the risk of landslides and floods. Moreover, human life is closely linked to the dynamics of glaciers and their melting: for example, the largest Asian rivers depend on the Himalayan glaciers and provide water to more than a billion people. Finally, this project could have a relevant impact from an environmental point of view, since the growth of vegetation in the glacier-free areas could help fight global warming, favouring the storage of carbon dioxide underground.
You received an ERC grant soon after you came back to Italy. A good example of brain return…
I worked as a researcher at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and, last year, I returned to Italy after winning a competition announced by the University of Milan. I chose Milan as the hosting site for my research project because there are very good colleagues to set up a good research team here. Moreover, this University has adopted the very far-sighted policy of supporting researchers in submitting projects to the European Research Council. And maybe it is no coincidence that in 2017 the University of Milan was the only university in Italy that won two of these prestigious grants...