New year, new opportunities! We started 2022 with an advanced course on social-ecological and geomorphological systems, organised by our ESRs Sonia and John and their supervisors Ronald Pöppl and Thomas Hein. And the best part: We ESRs finally all got together, in beautiful Vienna!

Day 1 – Theory

On our first day, we were introduced to the main topics of the course: hydrological (Ronald Pöppl) and socio-ecological (Thomas Hein/Andrea Funke) connectivity. Those two types of connectivity build the foundation of Sonia’s and John’s project which they presented afterwards.

Sonia investigates the management of the floodplain ecosystems in the Donau-Auen National Park. For the purpose of increasing the lateral hydrological connectivity in this area, several isolated side-arms will be reconnected to the main river, thereby restoring ecological habitats and reducing riverbed-incision. John’s case study is the Fugnitz catchment, which also encompasses the Thayatal National Park, where he looks at the impact of land use on the national park. One of the main issues here are high soil erosion rates associated with agriculture that lead to sediment accumulation and river pollution.

After a brilliant talk of i-CONN member Louise Bracken on integrating hydrological and social systems, we were lucky to get further details about the two national parks by experts working there that helped us to understand the background of Sonia’s and John’s background better: David Freudl explained how connectivity is managed in the Thayatal National Park and Stefan Schneeweihs did the same for the Donau-Auen National Park.


Sonia and John presenting their projects

Day 2 – Fieldtrip

Fieldtrip! Yay!!!

Sonia and John took us to some sites within their research areas to show us the current situation and explain in more detail what they are doing and why. In the Donau-Auen National Park, structures were built 26 years ago as measures to increase the hydrological connectivity, but they also had some unexpected outcomes: due to riverbed incision, the areas that should enable a permanent waterflow are now dry more than half of the year. Therefore, Sonia’s aim is to examine how to best plan future restoration measures, with a focus on benthic macroinvertebrate habitats.

The Fugnitz catchment is largely agriculturally used, mainly for crops, and the fields are regularly ploughed and fertilised. The ploughing practices lead to a higher soil erosion which means that the fertilised and otherwise polluted sediments from the fields are transported into the Fugnitz and then into the Thaya river, of which the Fugnitz is the largest tributary. These and other anthropogenic alterations of the rivers affect habitats and biodiversity. John tries to find out how and how much sediment is transported from the fields into the rivers and how the soil erosion can be reduced.

After a long day out, we finally ended up in a traditional Viennese wine tavern where we enjoyed not only good food and wine, but also appreciated the warm and dry room after the Austrian weather decided to impose a variety of sun, rain, wind and even a bit of snow on us. But as you say in Vienna: “Mia san jo ned aus Zucker!” (literally translated: “We’re not made from sugar”, meaning that a little rain cannot hurt us!).

The inflow structure at a side-arm of the Danube.


Wood accumulation in the Fugnitz River – including a beaver dam!

Day 3 and 4 – Working Groups

The last to days of our workshop were all about interdisciplinarity. We separated into working groups to discuss what we as an interdisciplinary team could add to Sonia’s and John’s project.

Group 1 worked on assessing change in cultural ecosystem service provision in the Donau-Auen National Park. The public and the residents are often hesitant when restoration measures are out in place because they fear that the ecosystem services will be negatively affected or their homes might be in danger. Therefore, the group investigated how to use hydro-sociological mapping to increase the acceptance of the public to river restoration projects.

Group 2 examined the impact of previous restoration measures in the Donau-Auen National Park on the structural connectivity and which future measures might improve it further. They came to the conclusion that the river is already much less fragmented than before the restoration measures and that the modelling of different scenarios will help to identify measures to support this process more.

Group 3 decided to take a look at the social system behind the soil erosion in the Fugnitz catchment. Uncovering the social system of ownership and landusers might reveal unexpected relations between them and the soil erosion processes on their respective agricultural plots so that measures could be better planned and directed. By tracing the two systems and their connections through time, it could even be possible to make predictions for the future.


Work in progress! Finding interdisciplinary approaches to the two projects.

And what else?

Despite all the amazing things we learned and worked on during those few days, we also had some time to explore Vienna. A tour through the city, guided by Mel, a visit to the Belvedere, the Naturhistorische Museum, the theatre or opera, ice-skating at the famous Wiener Eistraum, a trip to Melk and the surrounding areas and, of course, honouring the Austrian culture by eating and drinking their traditional dishes, wines and beers. All in all, a really successful and exciting week for all ESRs!


Wiener Eistraum and Stift Melk – just two of the exciting places we visited.


And guess what? Our next course is already coming up soon: environmental science and neuroscience, taking place in Cyprus at the end of March. More about that later!

Until then, take care!



Cheers and until next time!