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Norwegian national team in Arctic climate research

Norway is the second largest contributor to International Polar Year (IPY), second only to Canada. It is the third time in history that the International Polar Year is being held. Seventy years have passed since this international research collaboration was last implemented.

International Polar Year is an excellent time to collect new data about climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic. The University of Tromsø is contributing to this through its participation in the flagship project “Arctic Natural climate and environmental changes and human adaptation: from Science to Public Awareness”, which is being headed by the Geological Survey of Norway (NGU).

“This project will contribute to an increased level of knowledge and attention among both decision-makers and the public at large,” says Head of Project Eiliv Larsen. “The objective is to reveal natural climate and environmental changes in the High North, and at the same time look at how the early pioneer immigrants relate to climate change.”

View separate article about archaeology

Three areas of strategic importance

The Universities of Tromsø and Bergen, the Norwegian University of Life Sciences at Ås, the University Centre at Svalbard, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Department of Journalism at Oslo University College and the Science Centres in Tromsø, Trondheim and Bergen are all represented in this collaboration.

The University of Tromsø is contributing researchers from the Departments of Geology and Archaeology.

“This project focuses on three areas of strategic importance,” says Geology Professor Morten Hald, who is participating in the project. “The first is to better understand the natural climate changes in the Arctic. The second is to look at how the people who lived in the Arctic adapted to climate change in the past. And third, but by no means last, we want to ensure that the research results in concrete and lasting outreach products.”

“The Arctic is an area of considerable interest to many and it is important that there is a good national co-ordination,” says Professor Hald.

“The whole of Norway must collaborate on this, something the national team which is together for this flagship project clearly symbolises. We are a small country and within the field of environment and climate research, we need to join forces to be at the leading edge of research and to get the most out of the research funding.”

Improving the methods

Professor Hald believes that the current methods and models utilised for climate construction must be improved. The natural climate changes of the past in the Arctic can tell us a lot about how the climate of the future will be, and what role human activity plays in global warming.

“With respect to climate change, Arctic research is extremely important,” says Professor Hald. “We expect that the effects of global warming will be greatest here, including that the spread of ice sheets and glaciers will reduce.”

The geologists at the University of Tromsø will mostly study the connection between climate in the ocean and the spread of glaciers.

Climate through thousands of years

One of the project activities is to collect sediment samples from the sea floor between Svalbard and Greenland. The geologists will study the content of shell from small single-celled micro organisms in these sediment samples.

The shells of the single-celled animal and plant species are buried in the sediments over time and can be studied in the sediment core thousands of years back in time.

“We will among other things study how the content in the sediment sample varies according to the ocean temperature. We will work out a mathematical equation that shows the connection between the water temperature and a given animal or plant species. We can then study the microfossils in samples from the sediment core and use the mathematical equation to calculate the water temperature backwards in time,” he explains.

“Using the university’s vessel ‘Jan Mayen’, we can collect sediment cores that are more than 10 metres long and in this way we are able to see how the climate has changed over thousands of years.”

Contributing to future climate research

The flagship project will contribute to long climatic timelines. Such data collections, which provide a better understanding of the natural climate changes of the past or palaeoclimate as it is now known, can assist researchers making climate prognoses about the future.

“Most future models show that the climate will be warmer in the future, but these models have difficulty showing how warm it will be,” says Professor Hald. “The main problem is that these models are often based on relatively new climate data. The thermometer has only been in existence for 150 years and information on temperature which is 150 years old does not capture the large natural changes.”

Professor Hald believes the models which are utilised to make prognoses about the future climate changes consider palaeoclimate only to a minor degree.

“Studies of warm periods in the past, like during the Stone Age can provide valuable knowledge to understand and tackle the warmer climate in the future,” he says, adding: “We can be better prepared to distinguish between man-made and natural climate change. I strongly believe that the flagship project will provide new inspiration for climate research for many years to come. It can also strengthen polar research in Norway and make us a leader in this field.”

Popular science

The project also promises the dissemination of information on a new level. Mobile exhibitions, collaboration with the science centres and computer-based tools will be utilised.

“One of the things we will use is a mini-visionarium – an advanced 3D tool, which can among other things show how the glaciers in the Arctic came and went.

The research findings from the flagship project will also be disseminated internationally.

“We are collaborating with Polaria Museum and the Svalbard Museum on international exhibitions. We will also participate in the Geology World Congress in Oslo in 2008. This is the largest event for geologists and involves almost 8000 researchers.

The dissemination of information takes into account all levels, from kindergartens to higher education. Therefore, the flagship project is collaborating with the Department of Journalism Studies at Oslo University College on the education of research journalists.

“We will take the journalism students out on field assignments and show them how research data is collected,” says Professor Hald. “They can use this in an assignment in conjunction with their studies.”

Karen Marie Christensen | alfa
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