“What are we doing to our world, and how bad is it?”
Climate change is happening twice as fast in the Arctic, and what happens there has a huge impact on the rest of the world. Climate scientist Anne Bjorkman is following these developments in real time.
Anne Bjorkman loves plants. She also loves history and wants to understand how things are interconnected and change over time. So it’s hardly surprising that she has chosen to dedicate her professional life to specialising in plant ecology.
“Curiosity is the biggest driver for me. I am quite simply very curious about ecology and the change that is happening. What are we doing to our world, and how bad is it? I want to understand that, because otherwise we won’t be able to do anything about it,” she says.
It's a chilly spring day in the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, and new growth is yet to take off. But Anne Bjorkman is accustomed to the cold and to bare landscapes. She has spent the last few years studying the Arctic, and how its vegetation and ecology in the large area around the Earth’s North Pole are being impacted by climate change.
There are many reasons why climate scientists are so interested in the Arctic. Here, climate change is leading to a temperature rise twice that of the rest of the world, and everything that happens in the region can have huge global significance.
“The whole Arctic can be seen as a test case for how things may develop in the rest of the world, as we can monitor how vegetation and the ecosystems are being affected by accelerated warming. In addition, half of the Earth’s terrestrial carbon is found in the Arctic’s frozen tundra. If the tundra melts and carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, it could have an enormous impact on global warming,” she says.
Her research is possible thanks largely to a five-year grant from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.
“The grant has opened up whole new opportunities. For example, we can now study several places at once, which is important for being able to draw overall conclusions. And we can ask those additional research questions that can lead to such important results,” she says.
The next research expedition is planned for the summer, this time to Svalbard. This is where Anne Bjorkman and her research team will study how the biodiversity in the area is being affected by climate change. They will compare different places with varying topographies and vegetation, and there are primarily two questions that the researchers aim to investigate. On the one hand, they want to explore whether plants growing in areas where there is great variation in temperature, for example in mountainous areas, are coping with global warming better than other plants. On the other hand, they want to examine shifts in vegetation in the wake of the warming.
“Who are the winners and losers when the climate gets warmer? Which species survive the temperature rise? And will new species, which currently grow further south, move into the Arctic?”
The research team has already been able to observe certain changes. Anne Bjorkman explains that some species that were previously found in one area of the Arctic can now be found in new places. In areas of thawing, some species are flowering earlier than before, and some plants have grown significantly bigger than they did previously. Changes that all affect the ecosystem in different ways.
“A lot of our research is about understanding the significance of climate change in the Arctic, predicting what is going to happen and how the rest of world will be impacted. That knowledge is also important to be able to make the right decisions, for example, whether it is necessary to assist certain species to move further north,” she says.
Her love of field work remains strong, despite it having become more difficult since starting a family. To be virtually cut off from the rest of the world for long periods can be difficult – but also liberating.
“Not checking your e-mail for months and only using a satellite phone to communicate… You are really a long way away from everyday reality. But it also means that you can concentrate on the research and avoid having to absorb what is happening around the world and all the horrible news that otherwise tends to wash over you,” she says.
What is your best memory from the field?
“A trip to Greenland in 2019. My son was eight months old, and my husband took parental leave so that we could all go together. I was able to work and still have my family close to me in a fantastic Arctic environment. There were no polar bears – or mosquitoes – but there were enormous icebergs and a beautiful tundra. We saw seals every day. It was quite simply perfect.”
BY: Ulrika Ernström
THE PAST: The Arctic ecologists of the past were brilliant ecologists and natural historians, with keen observational skills. These scientists developed many of the leading hypotheses about how climate change would influence Arctic plants, but their ability to test those hypotheses was sometimes limited by the scale of study (often limited to a single study location), the lack of precise temperature data, and the lack of long-term vegetation monitoring data that tracks changes in the species composition over time.
NOW: We are building on the impressive efforts of Arctic ecologists who began experimental and monitoring efforts back in the 1990’s. Now, there are dozens of sites, all over the Arctic, with data from almost 30 years of warming experiments and vegetation monitoring. In addition, new technologies allow us to monitor temperature not just at a single climate station, but in hundreds of plots across the landscape, thus better reflecting temperatures at the scale a plant actually experiences.
IN THE FUTURE: Combining long-term monitoring efforts from many different Arctic locations with new data collection and new technologies opens a whole new world in our understanding of the impacts of climate change. We will be able to test hypotheses about how the vegetation is changing and which species are the “winners” and “losers” of this change (i.e., immigrating, increasing, or disappearing from Arctic environments). A major area of future research will be to better understand what the consequences of these changes are for the rest of the ecosystem.