Applying for a Villum Experiment grant gave Peter Ditlevsen the chance to pursue a project without knowing where it was going to lead.

Physicist and climate scientist Peter Ditlevsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, was a part of the first group of Villum Experiment grant recipients, in 2017. Applying, he says, gave him the chance to pursue different lines of enquiry into tipping points in nature, a sort of threshold that, when exceeded, leads to dramatic, self-perpetuating changes.

Peter Ditlevsen is eeking new ways to understand the so-called tipping points in nature

“The problem is that the current models for climate change that we use to base decisions on assume that the climate changes at a constant rate over time,” Ditlevsen says.

“But, it’s possible for things to change dramatically, like if we reach the point where the melting of Greenland’s ice cap can’t be stopped, regardless of how much we cut our CO2 emissions. Deforestation of the Amazon is something that could push us to a tipping point; trees retain moisture, and if you take away too many you start an irreversible process, and eventually what was once humid jungle becomes arid prairie, which only raises temperatures further.”


 "It’s impossible to say what will come out of an experiment like this – if anything comes out of it at all.”

About Villum Experiment

Villum Experiment funds exceptional research projects in the technical and natural sciences that challenge norms and have the potential to fundamentally alter our approach to key questions.

The applicants are anonymous to the international panel of peer reviewers, which allows them to focus on the research proposal alone and give researchers freedom of scope in relation to their current academic standing.

This programme is advertised annually in an open competitive call for proposals. The grant is worth up to DKK 2 million and is for up to two years.

Read more about Villum Experiment here 

Challenging climate models

Being awarded a Villum Experiment grant gave Ditlevsen the opportunity to test existing climate models, known as earth system models, something that is rarely done in any consequential manner, given how complex they are.

“I’d spent a lot of time thinking about the apparent conflict between the violent changes the Earth’s climate has undergone in its past and what the climate models were telling us we could expect in the future,” Ditlevsen says.

“My idea was to experiment with the current climate models by pushing them to the limits and see if they were capable of describing true tipping points. It’s impossible to say what will come out of an experiment like this – if anything comes out of it at all.”

New questions, more research

Ditlevsen’s experiment led to several other questions about tipping points, and these, in turn, served as the foundation for Tipping Points in the Earth System (TiPES), a research consortium involving the participation of 18 European research institutions that has received DKK 65 million in funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. Ditlevsen leads the consortium, but his ambitions don’t end there.

“The next big goal is to be able to predict the risk of climatic changes that are more severe than what the UN IPCC scenarios project. We’re talking about putting enormous resources over the next decades into reducing emissions and adapting to climate change. It’s important that we have the soundest possible foundation to base those decisions on,” Ditlevsen says.

“In terms of basic research, we’d like to understand why ice ages have come and gone in Earth's history, and why they lasted anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000 years. This is another unanswered question. More generally, this can help us understand the mechanisms that drive a planet’s climate.”

Villum Experiment

The Villum Experiment programme supports unorthodox ideas in their early phase.