Professor Bruno Messerli, 1931-2019
Bruno MesserliIt is with sadness that we share news of the death of one of the MRI's earliest supporters, Professor Bruno Messerli, who passed away at the beginning of February. Bruno was an inspiring leader and scientist, and a true giant of mountain research. In addition to the central role he played in the birth of the MRI, Bruno also co-founded the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). We extend our deepest condolences to Bruno’s family, and mourn the loss of a dedicated colleague and a good friend.



Obituary Bruno Messerli 

After a long illness, Bruno Messerli passed away during a clear winter night in February 2019, surrounded by his wife Béatrice and his whole family. Bruno was an outstanding scientist, colleague and friend, full of enthusiasm, ideas and congeniality, and always ready to take over leadership. We will sadly miss him.

After studying geography, geology and history and his work on a doctoral thesis about geomorphology of the Sierra Nevada in Andalusia, Bruno started his career with an impressive habilitation thesis on the Pleistocene glaciation of mountain ranges around the Mediterranean. This was the start of Bruno’s broad and fruitful fieldwork in high-altitude mountains -- in Africa (Tassili, Tibesti, Aïr and Hoggar mountains in the Sahara, Semien mountains and Mount Kenya in East Africa), the arid Andes of South America and the Himalayas. For decades, his scientific work was driven by the question whether or not the highest mountains in the most arid zones of the world were glaciated during the Last Glacial Maximum, or if the lack of moisture prevented widespread glaciation, despite extremely low temperatures. He wondered how glaciation in the mountains related to paleolakes and water resources in the nearby lowlands.

Bruno was a real mountaineer who loved the mountains and their people. Bruno’s brilliant research work is characterised by his broad view of climate dynamics and climate history, with all its ecological consequences. In the spirit of his early mentor Carl Troll, he was able to outline an impressive picture of the long-term dynamics of the mountain climate system and its influence on geomorphological processes and natural resources, such as water, soil and vegetation. His contributions on mountain hazards and highland-lowland-interaction were seminal for many of his young colleagues. Together with his friend Hans Oeschger, Bruno was fascinated by new research methods such as radiocarbon dating, which he readily utilized to advance his research.

With his relentless enthusiasm, Bruno was a continuous generator of ideas and new projects. Parallel to his efforts in high mountain research he initialised two research programmes on regional and urban climate in the region and city of Bern, Switzerland, and supported research on Little Ice Age fluctuations in the Alps. He never hesitated to fight for mountain protection and development, never forgetting the significance of the mountain landscape as a key resource for people living in it. He was proud to be one of the initiators and “fathers” of the Mountain Agenda in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (Chapter 13 in Agenda 21: “Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Sustainable Mountain Development”). He was a co-founder of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal and of the Mountain Research Initiative MRI, based in Switzerland. Bruno also looked back to a long collaboration with FAO, which acts as a task manager of the Mountain Agenda. His impact on mountain research and development around the world has thus had a broad and long-lasting impact.

Bruno was also an active and talented academic leader. He was professor of physical and regional geography at the University of Bern from 1969 to 1996 and acted as director of the Institute of Geography from 1978 to 1983. From 1986 to 1987 he served as Rector of the University of Bern. Bruno was very happy when the Institute of Geography formed a new division focusing on sustainability in mountain areas of the world, now the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE). He also acted as President of the International Geographical Union IGU from 1996 to 2000. From 1996 to 2001 Bruno was Co-Director of the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme’s project on Past Global Changes (PAGES), which was founded by his late friend Hans Oeschger and which is still hosted at the University of Bern. He was excited by the spirit of the PAGES team, not least because mountain climate research, historical climatology and the reconstruction of past climate based on natural archives and documentary data, was one of his passions.

It is no surprise Bruno Messerli got many prizes and honours, including two honorary doctorates from the University of Innsbruck and Free University of Berlin, the Prix Vautrin Lud, the unofficial “Nobel prize in geography” and he shared the prestigious Marcel-Benoist-Prize with Hans Oeschger and Werner Stumm.

The international science community mourns an inspiring leader and scientist, a true giant of mountain research, but above all we have lost a dear friend. We all express our deep condolences to Bruno’s family, and especially to his wife Béatrice, who was his active and charming partner, accompanying him on many trips around the world, both as a supporter and as a scientific advisor.


Ray Bradley, Martin Grosjean,
Thomas Stocker and Heinz Wanner