Land-atmosphere interaction in mountain regions

Atmospheric, surface and subsurface processes are coupled in a complex way in mountain regions. In order to understand the interactions between atmosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere, observations (e.g. meteorological variables, soil moisture, subsurface temperature, soil porosity, snow and ice thickness etc) and model simulations have to be combined and jointly analysed.

We use a variety of models (meteorological, hydrological, soil physical and glaciological) on different time scales and use monitoring networks (including our own glacier, permafrost, energy balance and soil moisture stations) for joint analysis and validation. 


SOMOMOUNT (Soil moisture monitoring in mountain areas)

Research cluster(s):

(1) Monitoring of the Cryosphere, (4) Modelling of frozen ground, (5) Land atmosphere interaction in mountain regions & (6) Applied and high mountain geophysics


SOMOMOUNT: Soil moisture in mountainous terrain and its influence on the thermal regime in seasonal and permanently frozen terrain


In many geoscientific problems, the water content of the near subsurface plays a major role not only regarding the energy and water budget of the soils and at the atmosphere-subsurface interface, but also regarding stability issues on sloping mountainous terrain. This includes the influence of water content on the thermal and hydraulic conductivity of frozen soil as well as the influence of latent heat during freeze and thaw processes.

In spite of this importance, soil moisture is currently not measured operationally at middle or high altitudes, where a seasonally and perennially frozen subsurface (permafrost) prevails. The project will close this gap regarding data availability and process understanding about the influence of spatially and temporally variable water content on the ground thermal regime in the context of freezing and thawing processes.


Duration: 2013-2016

Funded by: Swiss National Science Foundation 

Project lead/principal investigator (PI): Christian Hauck (Prof.)

Collaborators: Cécile Pellet (PhD student), Adrian Wicki (MSc student), Philippe Aebischer (BSc student), Silvia Kaiser (BSc student), Christin Hilbich (Dr.), Coline Mollaret (PhD student) 

External collaboration with:

  • SwissSMEX (Prof. Sonia Seneviratne/Dr. Heidi Mittelbach, IAC; ETH Zürich)
  • MeteoSuisse
  • AlpuG Davos, Waljag Malans,
  • Truebner Instruments
  • Dr. Manfred Stähli (WSL, Birmensdorf)
  • Prof. Andreas Kemna (University of Bonn, Germany)
  • SNF Sinergia project TEMPS (The temporal evolution of mountain permafrost in Switzerland)
  • PERMOS network
  • ARPA (Regional Environmental Protection Agency – Aosta valley, Italy)

Contact at University of Fribourg: cecile.pellet[at], christian.hauck[at]


Pellet, C., Hilbich, C., Marmy, A. and Hauck, C. (2016): Soil Moisture Data for the Validation of Permafrost Models Using Direct and Indirect Measurement Approaches at Three Alpine Sites. Front. Earth Sci. 3:91. doi: 10.3389/feart.2015.00091

Pogliotti, P., Guglielmin, M., Cremonese, E., Morra di Cella, U., Filippa, G., Pellet, C., and Hauck, C. (2015): Warming permafrost and active layer variability at Cime Bianche, Western European Alps, The Cryosphere, 9(2), 647-661, doi:10.5194/tc-9-647-2015.

Research aims/sciences questions:

This project aims at:

1)      Setting up a network of soil moisture monitoring stations at middle and high altitudes in Switzerland

2)      Applying innovative geophysical approaches to determine the 2-dimensional distribution of liquid water and ice content

3)      Using the coupled heat and mass transfer subsurface model COUP to estimate the influence of temporally and spatially changing soil moisture on the thermal regime of partly and permanently frozen ground

Methods/methodology of the project: Soil moisture monitoring (TDR and FDR), soil sampling and laboratory analysis, electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), refraction seismic tomography (RST), 1D soil modelling (COUP)

Study area: La Frétaz (VD), Dreveneuse (VS), Le Moléson (FR), Gemmi (VS), Schilthorn (BE), Cervinia (I) and Stockhorn (VS)

Exemplary results (mainly nice pictures, illustrations, figures!):

Figure 1: Illustration of the soil characteristic and sensor installation for all SOMOMOUNT stations. 

Figure 2: Measured soil moisture (upper panel) and ground temperature (lower panel) evolution at all SOMOMOUNT stations 

Figure 3: Modelled 2D distribution of porosity (first row), relative ice- (second row), water- (third row) and air- (last row) contents in the ground at Schilthorn, Cervinia and Gemmi using ERT and RST measurements.


Hauck, C., Böttcher, M. and Maurer, H. 2011. A new model for estimating subsurface ice content based on combined electrical and seismic data sets. The Cryosphere, 5, 453–468.

Hilbich, C., Fuss, C., Hauck, C. 2011. Automated time-lapse ERT for improved process analysis and monitoring of frozen ground, Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 22(4), 306-319

Jansson, P.E. & Karlberg, L. 2001. Coupled heat and mass transfer model for soil-plant-atmosphere systems. Royal Institute of Technology, Dept. of Civil and Environ. Engin., Stockholm, 453 pp.

Mittelbach, H., Casini F., Lehner I., Teuling A.J., and S.I. Seneviratne, 2011. Soil moisture monitoring for climate research: Evaluation of a low cost sensor in the framework of the SwissSMEX campaign. J. Geophys. Res., 116, D05111, doi:10.1029/2010JD014907.

Scherler, M., Hauck, C., Hoelzle, M., Stähli, M. & Völksch, I., 2010. Melt-water infiltration into the frozen active layer at an alpine permafrost site. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, 21, 325–334.



Unit of Geography - Chemin du Musée 4 - 1700 Fribourg - Tel +41 26 / 300 90 10 - Fax +41 26 / 300 9746
nicole.equey [at] - Swiss University