From snow and ice to soil and plants

Mats Björkman received his doctorate in snow chemistry, but as a permafrost researcher, he has continued in considerably darker shades. As a Marie Curie research fellow at the University of Gothenburg, he is conducting research on what happens to the environment when the permafrost in the north melts.
“The first time I rode off to get muddy samples, I decided to never work with permafrost”, says Mats Björkman. “It was so gooey.”

But fate decreed otherwise. Because of his partner and child, a postdoctoral position in Gothenburg involving permafrost research suited him better than staying in Norway, where he received his doctorate.

Permafrost means that the ground is completely frozen all the way through. This constant ground frost, the result of temperatures below freezing for at least two years, can be up to 600 metres deep and is most widely distributed in the Arctic tundra. But in the northernmost parts of Sweden, there are patches of permafrost in areas extending for miles and miles. In research lingo, this is called discontinuous permafrost.

It takes a long time to melt permafrost. Usually only the very top layer of soil and peat melts during summers, making it possible for the tundra’s low-growing and fragile vegetation to survive. But as the climate becomes warmer, the permafrost underneath melts, and it is that period after the melting that Mats and his team are researching. They want to determine how the ecosystem is affected during the period when permafrost vanishes as well as the following years when the permafrost is completely gone.
“Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen with biodiversity”, says Mats, “because until now there has been a lack of long-term studies of ground that had previously been permafrost.”

Researchers are well aware that increasingly large areas of permafrost are disappearing and that this in turn affects vegetation. One person who has been investigating climate change and permafrost for a long time is Ulf Molau, professor of plant ecology at the University of Gothenburg. Based on Ulf’s research, Mats has identified three areas near Abisko that previously had been permafrost, which he is investigating further.

Mats was surprised at how much change has taken place just 10 years after Molau’s studies. He almost wondered if there were errors in the measurements, but this was not the case.
“This is beginning to be scary. The effect of climate change is clearly evident, not so much here but in the Arctic, where we can see the extreme effects as warm temperatures are transported northwards from here. The average temperature in Svalbard has been above normal for the last five years. In the areas we’re investigating, it’s getting to be a problem for the local population, such as reindeer husbandry for the Sami.”

This summer Mats, along with students and field assistants, is traveling northwards for the third year in a row. They will move between the three areas, performing plant inventories, taking soil samples and measuring carbon dioxide and methane flows, which indicate how the ecosystem has been affected.
“Climate change is apparent, and for me it creates a kind of ethical dilemma that is difficult to tackle. With the knowledge I have, I should definitely stop using fossil fuels, while at the same time, I’m dependent on plane and helicopter transport to do my job.”

In a year, his Marie Curie project is to be completed, and it’s hoped that the project will result in two or three scientific articles, an EU report and maybe some side projects.
“I’ve considered preparing educational materials, such as films or teaching materials, to spread the research results even more, but it’s not so easy to do it well. What’s most meaningful is when I have students and see that they understand what I’m talking about.”

The permafrost research will continue with funding that Mats already has been granted by the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas). He doesn’t know what comes next.
“In five years I hope to have a permanent position or a position where I don’t always have to go and think about how I’ll be able to finance my salary for the next two years.”

Watch the film about Mats Björkman’s and his colleagues’ research about permafrost:

Mats Björkman

Age: 39 years
Family: Partner with two children, 2 and 4 years old
Place of residence: Flat in Kålltorp, Gothenburg
Profession: EU researcher
Leisure interests: “I like jogging but these days I don’t get out much.”
Happiest when: “I’m in the outdoors, for example, when I’m camping with the family or working on a research assignment, and everything works the way it should and I can sit back and enjoy a cup of tea.”
Unexpected talent: “I can sew. And previously I was good at dancing tango.”