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Climate change seen in unique long-term measurements

26 November 2012

All fieldwork in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway must follow safety rule number one – researchers are to carry a loaded rifle and be constantly on the look-out for polar bears. In the barren environment of Svalbard, Lund University has conducted research in physical geography for many years. Reader Jonas Åkerman has a series of measurements and documentation of the effects of climate change that stretches all the way back to 1972 and constitutes a unique data series.

The low-growing upland heath stretches in all directions in the forbidding landscape. Bare rocks are interspersed with grass and other hardy moorland plants. The low-lying regions are dominated by wetlands, where the mossy, marshy ground makes progress difficult. Lund University researcher Jonas Åkerman is well familiar with the terrain on Svalbard. He has been conducting research in the area around the Isfjord Radio field station since the early 1970s.

“In the first 20 years we never saw polar bears in the summer. Now they are always nearby”, he says.

The increasing risk of meeting a polar bear in Svalbard is one of a number of signs of ongoing climate change. The rise in temperatures causes sea ice to melt. When there is no longer any sea ice from which polar bears can hunt seal, they move onto land to feed on birds’ eggs and reindeer carcasses, explains Jonas Åkerman.

As a physical geographer, he has been studying other aspects of the effects of climate change on the Arctic environment. For example, new beach processes arise when there is no longer any sea ice; the paths of streams and rivers into the sea are now blocked by sand dunes built up by the waves. Previously, the sea ice lay as a protective lid and stopped the waves blocking the mouths of watercourses. This situation results in floods higher up on land, in the wetlands along the rivers.

“When there are floods, the birds do not breed successfully. The balance of plant life can also be changed, depending on which plants survive the floods”, explains Jonas Åkerman.

Other indications of climate change are that the ground defrosts deeper into the earth in the summers; what is known as the active layer of the soil becomes deeper. This means that more methane, a greenhouse gas, is released into the air, which creates a vicious circle for the climate. Jonas Åkerman’s 40-year series of measurements on the active layer and other factors, and other documentation, are valuable for climate change research.

“It is a completely unique data series. Long series of measurements are needed to be able to draw conclusions on this type of question”, he says.

This summer, a group of researchers and doctoral students from the Department of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences carried out fieldwork in Svalbard under the leadership of Jonas Åkerman. One of those visiting Svalbard for the first time was doctoral student Florian Sallaba. He found it very beneficial to see and experience the Arctic environment.

“I work on ecosystem modelling, which means I mostly sit at a computer. It is important to be able to relate to the real environment”, he says.

He also found it an interesting experience to act as polar bear look-out, equipped with binoculars and rifle, and to realise how much depends on the weather out in the wilds. A couple of days of storms keep you confined indoors.

“In Svalbard it is nature that decides, not people”, says Florian Sallaba.

Text: Lena Björk Blixt