Side effect of climate change: increase in pandemics

CLIMADEMIC: Dr Christopher Irrgang and his team are researching how climate-related risk factors - for example, increasingly frequent hot spells - may affect future pandemics.

From a love of mathematics to research with climate models

As a student, Christopher Irrgang decided to study mathematics with a focus on climate modeling. It was precisely the practical relevance that excited him from the start: "I find the subject fascinating because it not only allows us to explore abstract mathematical structures, but also to describe ubiquitous phenomena in nature and the environment. At Kiel University, I heard my first lectures on mathematics in climate modeling. That was the starting signal for my path into research." After completing his doctorate in meteorology at Freie Universität in Berlin, he was employed at the Helmholtz Zentrum Potsdam GFZ, where he worked in the Earth System Modeling section and published, among other things, a study on the opportunities and limitations of artificial intelligence in climate modeling. For the past year, Christopher Irrgang has been department head of climate and societal analytics at the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Public Health Research at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin. "The goal of interdepartmental cooperation in the field of artificial intelligence at the RKI is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the spread and prevention of diseases in the population and to counter epidemics of the 21st century even more effectively."
The climate scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) form an important basis for the research of the junior research group CLIMADEMIC, which Irrgang heads. "From these simulations, we want to derive expected risks for the spread of diseases and for public health in the future. The connection between climate change and health is also taking on an increasingly important role in the IPCC reports, and we naturally want to make a contribution to this."


The COVID19 pandemic also contributed to the CLIMADEMIC project idea, according to Irrgang. "As in almost all professions, the pandemic had a massive impact on everyday research and disrupted many existing routines. In addition to all the negative effects, however, there has also been scope for new ideas. CLIMADEMIC was one of them."
The core idea in CLIMADEMIC, Irrgang said, is to understand the Earth's climate and the health of its population as a coupled system. "There are, of course, already several concepts to unite, for example, environmental health, wildlife health and human health, such as the "One Health" approach." For example, Irrgang and his team plan to find, systematize and predict coupling mechanisms between the Earth's changing climate and the dynamics of pandemics. "To do this, we will use state-of-the-art numerical climate models and datasets in combination with the latest findings from infection biology, disease dynamics and bioinformatics. CLIMADEMIC will introduce a new level of understanding of global and regional climate-related threats to human health, which is a prerequisite for developing -adaptive strategies." However, he said, they are still in the early stages at the methodological or analytical level. "Machine learning is a particular focus here, as it offers us new opportunities to link and examine the various research data from climate, environmental and health research." Irrgang and his junior research group will initially focus on the global connection between climate change and so-called vector-borne diseases, such as yellow fever, dengue fever, West Nile fever or malaria. In a further step, research into the connection with other diseases is also conceivable: "At the RKI, there are also surveys and data on a large number of other diseases and dynamics in public health. Thus, newly developed methods, for example from the field of machine learning, can also be used to research other future health threats in Germany."

Adaptation to climate reality

The goal of the CLIMADEMIC junior research group is to protect society as effectively as possible from climate-related disease outbreaks. Model- and data-based research into climate-related disease outbreaks makes it possible to develop a whole range of scenarios for how this can be achieved, says Christopher Irrgang. "Very fundamentally, we are interested in what a healthy and resilient society will look like in the future. To do this, we need to be able to assess what health hazards await us in the future in order to develop appropriate precautionary strategies. Today, we can already see that more and more countries are creating national heat protection plans to better warn and protect the population from extreme heat periods."

Funding measure "BMBF Junior Research Groups Global Change: Climate, Environment and Health"

The junior researcher program is very exciting for 35-year-old Christopher Irrgang because it examines the relationship between the three core topics of climate, environment and health from so many different angles - from global climate processes to local impacts at the city level. "Hopefully, at the end of the program, it will have resulted in a more holistic picture of climate-related health risks, but also on opportunities and possible adaptation strategies."

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