Risk & Resilience Cluster

Addressing challenges of greater mountain regions from a multi‐dimensional and dynamic perspective

Übersarungen / Überschwemmung / Swiss losses from floods, landslides and debris flows
(Sources: Keystone/Alessandro della Valle, Aargau Department of Construction, Transport and the Environment)

Natural disasters occur within a broader social and physical context that is interconnected and may include climate change and economic crises. However, much of the existing research on natural hazards lacks interdisciplinary approaches which equally consider natural and social processes. Thus, while progress has been made to mitigate and adapt to natural hazards, the lack of integration between approaches remains a major challenge in developing disaster risk management plans for communities. To shed light on this topic the Institute of Geography at the University of Bern formed an interdisciplinary research cluster working on risk and resilience in mountain communities. Specifically, our research focuses on European Alpine communities that face numerous human and environmental risks and differ regarding their ability to cope with these risks and develop resilience.

The overarching aim of this project is to combine knowledge on risk and community resilience existing in different disciplines and develop a new framework of coupled human‐landscape systems. Through interdisciplinary discussions and joint research we seek to increase the theoretical and empirical understanding of essential factors and interactive mechanisms existing within coupled human‐landscape systems in mountain areas. In doing this we will raise awareness on the perception of mountain hazards and their effects on people and provide new information for decision-making. These aims will be addressed by accomplishing the following objectives:

  1. Develop a conceptual model addressing the dynamics of risk and community resilience in greater mountain areas with emphasis on couplings between humans and the landscape.
  2. Implement the conceptual model as a fully coupled human-landscape computer model.
  3. Test the coupled model against social and physical empirical data on mountain hazards.
  4. Determine what magnitude and frequency of physical and socio-economic shocks are buffered by mountain communities.
  5. Determine which physical and socio-economic shocks have a greater affect on mountain communities.
coupled human-landscape systems
Mountain community shocks and recovery trajectory of mountain communities exposed to shocks. (Sources: mb.ntd.tv, floodlist.com, zermatt.ch)

The newly developed models of the ‘Risk and Resilience’ cluster will be applied in the different study sites using the empirical data available within the cluster and from related projects. Initially our coupled human-landscape model will be developed and tested at study sites in Switzerland, with specific focus on catchments and communities within Canton Bern. This includes sites in the mountainous region of the Bernese Oberland and the hilly and low mountainous countryside of the Bernese Mittelland. We also intend to apply our models to locations in the broader Alps region.

Study sites of the risk & resilience cluster
(Sources: www.myswitzerland.com, de.wikipedia.org, Adrian Moser)

The ‘Risk and Resilience’ cluster brings together the wealth of knowledge and expertise across the University of Bern Institute of Geography and aims to improve the understanding of risks and overcome the barriers to increasing disaster resilience in mountain communities. Our team is composed of experts in climate impact, geomorphology, hazard and risk, economic geography, cultural geography, and integrative geography.


Within the risk and resilience cluster we have adopted a modelling approach to develop a Mountain Community Coupled Human Landscape System (MC-CHLS) for mountain communities exposed to socio-economic changes and natural disasters. MC-CHLS models community level socio-economic developments that consider water usage for hydropower and economic crises. Additionally, MC-CHLS replicates climate change and weather extremes that result in floods. Feedbacks between the socio-economic and physical systems permit flood adaptation by implementing mitigation options including flood defenses and land use changes, while feedbacks between hydrology and economy exist because hydropower is a major industry and employer within the community. Over decadal time scales we are using MC-CHLS and scenarios to measure community resilience in the European Alps and identify key features that overcome mountain community’s resilience to socio-economic changes and natural disasters.

Schematic of MC-CHLS. Shading demarcates components that include geomorphology and hazard (brown), climate and hydrology (blue), land use land cover change (purple), social and institutions (yellow), economy (green), and demographics (grey). Flood mitigation feedback in bold. Positive polarity means two variables move in the same direction, while negative polarity implies movement in opposite directions.

Governance of Adaptation to Climate Change in Regions

The goal of this project is to gain in-depth knowledge about the governance of adaptation to climate change in a select number of case study regions and local communities (for more information see here).

Physical vulnerability to torrent processes: contributing factors and spatial analysis

This project will contribute to a better prediction of the risk caused by debris flow, hyperconcentrated flow and fluvial sediment transport and gaining insights into inherent uncertainties as well as reducing these uncertainties (for more information see here).

Analysing losses and risk hotspots based on insurance data

In Switzerland, there are many spatial data, which can be used to estimate directly or indirectly the size and/or probability of flood losses. This project examines the advantages and disadvantages of the different data sources (for more information see here).

Fuchs, Sven; Keiler, Margreth (2016). Vulnerabilität und Resilienz – zwei Komplementäre im Naturgefahrenmanagement? / Vulnerability and resilience – two complementary factors in natural hazard management? In: Fekete, Alexander; Hufschmidt, Gabriele (Hg.) Atlas der Verwundbarkeit und Resilienz - Pilotausgabe zu Deutschland, Österreich, Liechtenstein und Schweiz / Atlas of Vulnerability and Resilience - Pilot version for Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland (S. 50-53). Köln und Bonn: TH Köln & Unversität Bonn

Keiler, Margreth; Fischer, Benjamin (2016). Human induced risk dynamics - a quantitative analysis of debris flow risks in Sörenberg, Switzerland (1950 to 2014). In: 13th Congress Interpraevent 2016 (pp. 571-579). International Research Society Interpraevent

Keiler, Margreth; Fuchs, Sven (2016). Vulnerability and exposure to geomorphic hazards: Some insights form the European Alps. In: Meadows, Michael E.; Lin, Jiun-Chuan (Hg.) Geomorphology and Society. Advances in Geographical and Environmental Sciences (S. 165-180). Springer

Mayer, Heike; Meili, Rahel (2016). New Highlander Entrepreneurs in the Swiss Alps. Mountain Research and Development, 36(3), pp. 267-275. International Mountain Society 10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-16-00040.1

Mayer, Heike; Habersetzer, Antoine Jean; Meili, Rahel (2016). Rural–Urban Linkages and Sustainable Regional Development: The Role of Entrepreneurs in Linking Peripheries and Centers. Sustainability, 8(8), p. 745. MDPI 10.3390/su8080745 

Wymann von Dach, S., Bachmann, F., Alcántara-Ayala, I., Fuchs, S., Keiler, M., Mishra, A. & Sötz, E. (Eds.) (2017): Safer lives and livelihoods in mountains: Making the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction work for sustainable mountain development. Bern, Switzerland, Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, with Bern Open Publishing (BOP). 78 pp. (derzeit im Druck)

Zimmermann, Markus N.; Keiler, Margreth (2015). International Frameworks for Disaster Risk Reduction: Useful Guidance for Sustainable Mountain Development? Mountain Research and Development, 35(2), pp. 195-202. International Mountain Society 10.1659/mrd-journal-d-15-00006.1

Zischg, Andreas Paul; Felder, Guido; Weingartner, Rolf; Gomez, Juan Jose; Röthlisberger, Veronika Eva; Bernet, Daniel Benjamin; Rössler, Ole Kristen; Raible, Christoph; Keiler, Margreth; Martius, Olivia (2016). M-AARE - Coupling atmospheric, hydrological, hydrodynamic and damage models in the Aare river basin, Switzerland. In: 13th Congress Interpraevent 2016 (pp. 444-451). International Research Society Interpraevent

EGU 2018 Vienna | Austria | 8–13 April 2018 | Geomorphic processes in coupled human and natural systems: past and present effects of human activity on landscapes


Risk and resilience cluster members (Jorge Ramirez and Margreth Keiler) will convene a PICO session on coupled human and natural systems in geomorphology. Session description: High geomorphic activity places communities at risk to landscape changes that include coastal erosion, landslides, river floods, and soil erosion. Regardless of our general understanding of geomorphic processes causing these landscape changes, it remains a challenge in geomorphology to foresee events and provide information and warnings to vulnerable communities. Failure to predict and explain geomorphic events is partly due to non-linear behaviour inherent within geomorphic systems that display disproportional responses to perturbations. Likewise, prediction is made difficult by the broader social context (e.g. sustainable development, human behaviour, and population dynamics) in which these events occur. As such, particular landscape changes, both desirable and undesirable, may be regarded as emergent phenomena of large complex systems which are characterized by multiple domains (e.g. geomorphic processes, society, climate and/or economic changes) and feedbacks between geomorphic processes and society. Although geomorphology contributes to and is affected by human society, much of the existing research investigating landscape changes does not capitalize on interdisciplinary knowledge that can result from geomorphologists working together with disciplines, such as the social sciences. We welcome participation from all researchers who can contribute to a greater understanding of the complex set of relationships between geomorphology and people. Submissions can include, but are not limited to empirical and modelling studies that investigate anthropogenic changes to the landscape, sustainable development, mitigating impacts of climate change, community risk/resilience, positive/negative feedbacks, thresholds/tipping points, spatial/temporal scales, river rehabilitation, and land use change.

Cluster represented at the ICG 2017 in New Delhi, India


Jorge Ramirez presented his research on human perturbations on the Kander river, Switzerland at the the ICG 2017 (see presentation below)

ICG 2017 New Delhi | India | 6th - 11th November | Geomorphic Processes in coupled human and natural systems


Risk and resilience cluster member Jorge Ramirez will co-chair a session with Michael Meadows (South Africa) and Jiun-Chuan Lin (Taiwan) on geomorphic processes in coupled human and natural systems at the International Conference on Geomorphology with the focal theme of geomorphology and society. More information about the session can be found here: http://www.icg2017.com/detailed-programme.php

May 8th-May 11th, 2017: International Guest Lecture of the Risk & Resilience Cluster


Prof. Susan Cutter (center), upon the invitation of the Risk and Resilience cluster, visited the Institute of Geography and delivered a positively received presentation on methods to measure community vulnerability and resilience. Additionally, Prof. Cutter met with members of the Risk and Resilience cluster to discuss developments in modelling socio-economic and physical dynamics in mountain communities. Prof. Cutter’s visit was capped off with a field excursion, led by members of the Geomorphrisk unit, to Swiss Alpine communities to meet stakeholders and understand the challenges these communities are facing. Prof. Cutter’s visit provided fruitful discussion and possibilities to extend the Risk and Resilience cluster’s outreach.

Masters Projects

Ongoing masters projects:

  • Simulating the effect of check dams on landscape evolution at centennial time scales with the CEASER-Lisflood model, a case study at the Gürbe
  • Sediment yield estimation on a catchment scale in data-scarce regions  Rasht valley, Tajikistan (GeomorphRisk/CDE)
  • Documentation and analysis of the Barsem debris flows, Tajikistan
  • Unternehmerinnen im Kontext des ländlichen Raums: Der Einfluss der regionalen Naturpärke auf die Unternehmerinnen und ihre Lebenswelt
  • Raumpioniere in Gemeinden des Schweizer Berggebiets
  • Entlebuch und Postwachstum
  • Developing a global model for shallow landslides within the CLIMADA framework

Masters projects on offer:

Research topics for a Master’s thesis with the Geomorphology, Natural Hazard and Risk Research group are assigned based on current research. If you are interested in one of these topics, please contact the contact person providing the following information:

  • short letter of motivation about the chosen topic
  • short CV about your studies, formations and experiences
  • list with completed courses (year, university, institute) with relation to the topic

We will be pleased to answer further questions by email or in a personal meeting.

Masters topics include:

  • Multi‐hazards and cascading events – Analysing the crucial interactions
  • Landslide model for Switzerland (Climate impact/GeomorphRisk)
  • Potenzialarme Räume (Schrumpfung) in der Schweiz
  • Baubranche im Schweizer Berggebiet: Branchenportrait, Rolle von Wachstum für die Branche und Wachstumssituation
  • Diverse topics to Post-growth economy (Postwachstumsökonomie), Small and medium-sized towns, rural regions, mountain areas, etc.
  • Modelling the effect of climate change on debris flows in Swiss catchments

    • Debris flows are fast moving mixture of water and solid material that can cause extensive economic damage. Computer models have offered the possibility to map debris flows using approaches with varying amounts of physical rigour, complexity, and computational efficiency. Landscape evolution models (LEMs) simulate erosion and deposition in river catchments and reaches over long time scales (100 yrs), but few LEMs include debris flow processes because of increased computational overhead, mismatches in spatial scale, and uncertainty in parameters. Without the inclusion of debris flows in LEMs it remains difficult to investigate landscape evolution in steep mountain catchments. To address this need researchers at the British Geological Survey have developed a human-timescale (annual-century) LEM (CAESAR-Lisflood-DESC) that includes debris flow processes (SCIDDICA). Within this master project the student will use CAESAR-Lisflood-DESC to investigate long term debris flow magnitude and frequency within Swiss catchments under various climate forcings. This provides an opportunity to determine if climate change will have a large effect on debris flows. The student, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Bern and the British Geological Survey will develop debris flow models for a number of sites in Switzerland. The student will receive training in numerical modelling, model calibration methods, GIS and automated processing of large datasets. These skills will equip the student for both academic or industry careers. The preferred candidate should be interested in computer modelling, numerically inclined, have basic programming skills, ability to perform spatial analysis, and willingness to communicate in English. Contact: Jorge Ramirez (jorge.ramirez@giub.unibe.ch)

  • Modelling the effect of centennial land cover change on sediment yield from the Emme catchment

    • Land cover transitions (e.g. deforestation) can have a major effect on the movement of sediment and water within catchments and rivers. These land cover changes affect the ease with which soil and sediment can be eroded, as well as changing catchment hydrology that can lead to losses of top soil, changing flood frequency and magnitude, influence slope stability, degrade habitats, and lead to sedimentation issues. Computer models exist to map landscape changes and sediment flux caused by land cover changes, notably, landscape evolution models (LEM’s) that simulate erosion and deposition on hillslopes and within river channels over long periods of time. The aim of this project is to test a LEM’s ability to replicate the effect of land cover transitions on landscape change and sediment flux. The study site is the Emme catchment, Switzerland where significant land cover transitions have occurred during the last century (Figure 1) and have contributed to channel erosion and bank instability. In addition to a modelling component, the student will perform fieldwork to determine if modelled landscape changes coincide with observed erosion and deposition. This verification of the model will be made using data collected through geomorphic field interpretation of the watershed and surveying the river channel at locations previously measured. The student will receive training in numerical modelling, model calibration methods, GIS and automated processing of large datasets. These skills will equip the student for both academic or industry careers. The preferred candidate should be interested in landscape evolution, computer modelling, numerically inclined, have basic programming skills, ability to perform spatial analysis, and willingness to communicate in English. Contact: Jorge Ramirez (jorge.ramirez@giub.unibe.ch)


In relation with the risk and resilience cluster several courses are offered (see below). More Information about these courses are available on the Core Teaching System (CTS). Coursework related to the cluster includes:

  • 26402-FS2016: Social and economic development dynamics beyond core regions (Economic Geography)
  • 10917-FS2016: Resilience in Sustainable Land Management and Land Systems
  • 101375-HS2016: Seminar in Geomorphology: Coupled human-landscape systems
  • 423825-HS2016: Challenges in Geography
  • 438745-FS2018: Geodata analysis and modelling