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Climate change, even in the remote Arctic?

The researchers work on a tundra site in Adventdalen on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. Lena Bakker, Sigrid Trier Kjaer and Jana Rüthers

Everyone is talking about global warming, but what happens in far-flung regions like the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard? Current climate research predicts that the world will become at least 2°C hotter compared to pre-industrial times, which is dramatic for the highly specialised plants and animals in this region. 

This content was published on August 9, 2022 - 09:26
Lena Bakker, Sigrid Trier Kjaer and Jana Rüthers

In order to predict how the composition and interactions of plants and microorganisms might change in the future, a dozen scientists from Norway and Switzerland - including us - are currently on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, located between Norway and the North Pole, for a month-long field trip. We are collecting a lot of data to find possible answers.

2MB field notes from Svalbard

2MB - that was the daily amount of data our original bloggers from the Antarctic were allowed to send us via satellite about their research on microplastics. Data transmission is also limited this summer for Lena Bakker, Sigrid Trier Kjaer and Jana Rüthers (left to right), three other PhD students at the ETH Zurich who are heading north to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard to investigate Arctic greening, a process initiated by global warming and driven locally by soil chemistry, thickness and age.

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We are all specialised in different disciplines, ranging from soil science to plant ecology, from botany to microbiology. After initial difficulties – caused in part by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a pilots’ strike – the majority of the team finally arrived in Longyearbyen, the main city of Svalbard, on July 6.

View from our site in Longyearbyen, representative of disturbed soils and vegetation close to settlements
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The island is bathed in eternal sunlight (which caused some sleepless nights), with curious reindeer in the middle of the village and countless geese with their goslings. In order to carry out research in this remote region where polar bears roam freely, and since we use open speed boats to get to our sites, we had to get basic rifle and survival training in the Arctic Ocean. We were surprised how difficult it is to coordinate ourselves and the whole group in giant survival suits.

Sigrid during our rifle and flare gun training

After the training, we visited our first research sites and were astonished by this amazing landscape. Reality soon taught us that strictly following planned methods did not work in this area. We could not find a plant species we were looking for. But after a few days, everybody had found their routine in the field and has got used to improvised offices and outdoor labs.

Lena drilling a soil core with curious reindeer as onlookers

We also felt the impact of global warming and climate change first hand, with record temperatures of around 16°C on two days. That's when we saw how green the Arctic can be. This is especially true at sites near human settlements or bird cliffs (with a lot of rare bird species that nest only in Svalbard), where the soils are enriched with nutrients. We could see a drastic change in plant composition in these areas. We are very interested in the results of microbiology and soil chemistry that we will analyse later in our lab in Zurich.

A typical bird cliff with nesting birds

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