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The weather detective

Understanding climate change and reducing inequality – Friederike Otto explains to the world how extreme weather events come about.

Sandra Kirchner , 28.08.2022
Friederike Otto – climate researcher in London.
Friederike Otto – climate researcher in London. © picture alliance / SVENSKA DAGBLADET

Just 20 years ago it was virtually impossible to identify the role that climate change played in a specific extreme weather event such as a heatwave or heavy downpour. Climate research has made huge progress in the meantime, however. Today it is possible to prove that the devasting flooding in the Ahr Valley in Germany that cost 134 people their lives in July 2021 was made more likely by climate change, namely by a factor of between 1.2 and 9.

It is chiefly thanks to Friederike Otto that such calculations were available just weeks after the disastrous floods. The climate researcher co-founded and helped advance the relatively new research field of attribution science, which explores how climate warming influences particular extreme weather events.

Global reputation in science

One thing is certain: climate change increases the intensity and likelihood of every heatwave. Otto earned a global reputation for herself for making this knowledge available. Alongside climate researcher Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, she was named one of the 100 most influential people of 2021 by the US magazine Time.

Together with the Dutchman, Otto founded the World Weather Attribution. The goal of this international research initiative is to rapidly publish scientific facts about specific extreme weather events.

Climate change increases inequality.
Friederike Otto, climate researcher at Imperial College, London

Otto’s work is also valued in the scientific world. In 2021, the journal “Nature” called her one of the world’s most important researchers, including her in its “Nature’s 10” list, where she is presented as a weather detective. Friederike Otto, who was born in the German city of Kiel, studied physics before doing a PhD in philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin. In her doctoral thesis, she explored scientific theory and climate modelling. Otto has now been living and researching in the UK for more than ten years. After several years in Oxford, the climate researcher nowadays works at Imperial College in London.

Heatwaves and climate change – water levels in the Rhine at the Bingen Mouse Tower are lower than almost ever before.
Heatwaves and climate change – water levels in the Rhine at the Bingen Mouse Tower are lower than almost ever before. © picture alliance / Daniel Kubirski

What motivated Otto to focus on climate change was the desire to tackle social injustice. “Climate change increases inequality,” says Otto, explaining that the advancing climate crisis poses a threat to vulnerable groups in particular, as they could lose their livelihoods or no longer be able to afford food because of rising prices. By contrast, the wealthy have sufficient resources to adapt. “If we are to adapt to the consequences of climate change, we must fight inequality,” believes Otto.


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