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Image: Tomas Utsi

Published: 2018-11-16

Mountain-crossing climate research

FEATURE In the sensitive mountain region, climate change can be seen with your bare eyes. The research station in Abisko hence has visiting researchers from all over the world. One of the operations carrying out climate studies in the Swedish mountains is the Climate Impacts Research Centre (CIRC) at Umeå University.

Abisko Scientific Research Station (ANS) is located 690 kilometres northwest of Umeå. About 40 kilometres east of the Norwegian border. And a ten-hour train journey from Umeå.

"People sometimes ask if it isn't lonely in Abisko. But Abisko and its surroundings is very popular among tourists and researchers, particularly in summer during which it really flourishes," says Jan Karlsson, director of the Climate Impacts Research Centre (CIRC).

And he has had plenty of time to experience Abisko as he has made his entire career here. From 1998 as a doctoral student and later as professor and director of CIRC. Nowadays, he spends a few days per month here, and the rest in Umeå.

Excellent labs and equipment

The person holding the fort in Abisko is instead project coordinator Keith Larson from the US. Since September 2013, Keith Larson and his family have lived all-year round at ANS.

And according to Keith Larson, Abisko has a lot to offer also to researchers outside of CIRC.

"We have great labs and equipment. You can come here to carry out research, but also to work on your grant proposal or your paper. All the while, you get a change of scenery and can enjoy skiing or spotting the Northern Lights. And there's no queue to the labs. Just get in touch!" says Keith Larson in a welcoming tone from his office at ANS.

ANS is run by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat and CIRC is the only tenant with researchers here all year round. Groups from other institutions come and go. The station has been extended on a number of occasions and the decorations remind you of the yellow and brown Swedish 1960s. The corridors are narrow and take you like a labyrinth in various directions.

Studying climate change

At the visit, the building seems to lie dormant and the summer rush has still not quite kicked off. Many of the researchers are also doing fieldwork.
One of them is ecologist Judith Sarneel with her project Teatime 4 Science. She came to Sweden from the Netherlands four years ago to conduct research. This autumn, she is even teaching the new course Arctic Ecosystems in Abisko.

An advantage with Abisko is that everything is so well-organised. Equipment, car and lab can be rented from the station and nature is right on your doorstep.

"The landscape around Abisko gives lots of opportunities to study climatic variation, you only have to go to the next valley to find another precipitation zone," says Judith Sarneel.

We are on our way out to the Storflaket mire. It is a rather chilly day with heavy grey clouds. The purpose of the excursion is to bury tea bags that Judith Sarneel three months later will dig up to measure the degree of decomposition.

The same mire is also regularly used by other researchers, particularly for permafrost studies. To the detriment of berry pickers perhaps. Because the field is full of cloud berry plants in full bloom that will later turn into the golden cloudberry — at least the female flowers, we find out.

Facts CIRC

Annually, 80 projects are run at ANS leading to 6,000 over night stays across 500—600 researchers and students. CIRC with its 40 researchers belongs to the Department of Ecology and Environmental Science at Umeå University.

This late in June, the mosquitoes have just arrived, but not in full attack mode yet. Spring had been cold and insects few, leading to delayed pollination of plants. The remaining patches of snow on the mountain are hence unusually thick causing trouble for some researchers with field sites on high altitudes. One of them is Maja Sundqvist who has had to spend many extra hours just reaching her field site resulting in not being able to meet up with us at all.

Sylvain Monteux, doctoral student in ecology, on the other hand is not affected by the weather right now. He has lived in Abisko for three years and has already spent hours measuring the depth of the active layer between the permafrost and the ground surface in the field. Now, his research is in a stage of data analysis at the station before he takes off on holiday back home to France.

"I really like Abisko. Seasons shift a lot, which provides good opportunities to vary how we conduct our studies. And we have a really good time outside of working hours," he says when he takes a break in the sun together with research colleagues from other research institutes outside the station.

International research environment

Keith, Sylvain and Judith are not the only ones who have travelled far to come to Abisko for their research. The fact is, a majority of visitors at ANS come from abroad. This is not least noticeable from all the signs in English posted all over the station. And in the break rooms we bump into researchers from Canada, the UK, Denmark and Germany.

This particular week, CIRC with the help of researchers are arranging a seminar series under the name Arctic Days in Abisko. But popular science lectures to the public is no one-off affair. CIRC researchers regularly spread climate research to an interested general public in Abisko as well as in Umeå.

Summer course in alpine ecology

Although, not only research takes place in Abisko — but education too. We followed Stig-Olof Holm, associate professor in ecology, with the help of nature guide Hassan Ridha, on an excursion to Kärke­vagge valley west of Abisko. Together with 22 students from the Umeå University summer course Alpine Ecology.

"The course is based on two sessions of field studies in Abisko focusing on birds and alpine plants. Today, the students will be learning more about alpine bumblebees and the effects of grazing on flora and fauna," says Stig-Olof Holm whilst walking along footbridges across wetland up the flowering valley.

At the start of the two-day stay Čuonjávággi (Tjuonavagge) — the Lapponian Gate — was hard to spot behind thick clouds, but ready for our departure, the well-known gate showed its splendour together with the midnight sun.


Text and translation: Anna Lawrence
Top photo: Thomas Utsi

This article was first published in the magazine Aktum no. 3 2017.