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Nordic Top-level Research Initative presents its findings on climate change, energy and the environment

The Top-level Research Initiative (TRI) is the largest joint Nordic research venture to date. During the last five years, many of the region’s leading researchers and their industrial partners have come together to find ways to respond to climate change, with emphasis on six selected fields of climate research. Some of the initiative’s impressive outcomes were presented at the TRI Flagship Conference in Stockholm on November 18-19.

By Páll Tómas Finnsson

Significant contributions to climate change research

The conference opened with the premiere of a new film about TRI. The film presented some of the many faces behind the research and provided insights into the outcomes of each of the six sub-programmes. Evaluations show that TRI has made a significant contribution to climate change research, as well as developed a range of innovative mitigation and adaptation solutions.


“The climate and energy challenges in our world demand new knowledge(c) Terje Heiestad
and innovations,” said Dagfinn Høybråten, Secretary General of the
Nordic Council of Ministers, in his opening speech. He commended the
researchers involved for producing knowledge of high academic quality and of international relevance. TRI, according to Høybråten, is a good example of what the Nordic countries can accomplish through their collaboration.


“We’re able to contribute to solving the global climate crisis and at the same time promote research and innovation within our region,” he affirmed. “With this initiative, we’ve created a new platform for future Nordic cooperation on research and innovation within the areas of climate, energy and the environment.”


Interdisciplinarity provides valuable outcomes

The TRI Flagship conference was a two-day event, with the first day focused on the research findings, while the second was devoted to discussions about the future. Interdisciplinarity has been a key feature of TRI, and this was clearly reflected in the presentations at the conference.


Jason D. Whittington is Scientific Director of NorMER, a Nordic Centre of Excellence (NCoE) occupied with the health of the northern marine ecosystems in a warming climate. He talked about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to climate issues, and focused in particular on the value of such cooperation to early-carrier researchers.


“NorMER is largely a training programme, as most of the fundamental science is carried out by our PhDs and postdocs,” Whittington said. “One of our aims is to nurture a new generation of interdisciplinary researchers with experience in combining physical, biological, social and economic aspects of ecosystem management.”


Improved renewable energy efficiency and system design

TRI funded three projects on integration of large-scale wind power. Making way for the shift to renewables is a complex task, and the projects have looked into everything from forecasting and modelling, aimed at optimizing wind energy production, to system design and grid integration.


“The overall objective is to support deployment and integration of wind energy in the five Nordic countries,” said Niels-Erik Clausen of DTU Wind Energy. Clausen is project coordinator of ICEWIND, whose aim is to supply the wind industry with improved forecasting of wind, waves and icing.


ICEWIND has produced wind atlases and ice maps, which are elemental in planning for new wind farms, and has moreover developed methods to forecast icing and estimate production losses caused by it. Thirdly, the project has studied wave forecasting and use of advanced vessels to improve accessibility to offshore installations.


On a related note, Research Director at SP, Agne Swerin, presented the findings of the TopNANO project. This project has developed and tested strongly water repellent nanostructured surfaces, so-called superhydrophobic surfaces, as a means to avoid icing problems on airplanes, wind turbines and heat exchangers.


Albedo, cryosphere and climate change

Three Nordic Centres of Excellence have studied different aspects of the interaction between climate change and the cryosphere – the earth’s ice and snow cover. SVALI has conducted studies of changes in land ice volumes in the Arctic and how they affect sea level and ocean circulation, while DEFROST has explored the impact on terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. Meanwhile, CRAICC has identified and quantified some of the major processes controlling arctic warming, focusing on short-lived climate forcers, such as aerosol particles, ozone and methane.


“The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the world and the reasons for this are not fully clear,” says Ilona Riipinen of NCoE CRAICC. “Our objective has been to outline the main reasons for the arctic amplification and study why the warming is more pronounced in wintertime.”


Furthermore, Jukka Käyhkö presented NCoE Tundra’s research into the consequence of forest and shrub expansion into tundra areas. NCoE Tundra has analysed this from an ecological, abiotic and socio-economic perspective, studying how changes in vegetation affect the livelihood of reindeer herders in tundra areas.


“If forest takes over the tundra, the albedo of the planet will change dramatically,” he explains. “The planet becomes darker. This means that more heat is absorbed and that mean temperature rises more rapidly. By stopping forest growth in these areas, we actually mitigate climate change.”


Visualisation as a means of communicating research

The importance of communicating research findings about climate change and making them more accessible to the general public was a reoccurring theme. The scientists of NORD-STAR, an NCoE in strategic adaptation research, have used visualisation techniques for this purpose. Professor Björn-Ola Linnér and Dr. Tina-Simone Neset used the opportunity to launch VisAdapt, a new visualisation tool allowing Nordic homeowners to prepare their homes for climate change, based on future climate scenarios and risk maps of their area.


“We know from research that climate change warnings and catastrophe scenarios do not really incentivise change,” Linnér said after introducing the new platform. ”It’s important to present solutions and ways in which we can react. VisAdapt shows private homeowners what they can do to reduce the risk of climate exposures in the region where they live.”


Green growth a means to renew the Nordic model

“Is society ready for a green future?” was the headline of the conference’s second day. Researchers, decision-makers and industry representatives discussed how to build upon the TRI research in facilitating a transformation to a strong, sustainable economy in the Nordic region. Swedish minister for Strategic Development and Nordic Cooperation, Kristina Persson, identified resource efficiency, investment in infrastructure and stimulation of innovation as important preconditions of achieving low-carbon growth.


“There are no contradictions between economic performance and (c) Terje Heiestad
employment on the one hand and sustainability on the other,” she said. “Global markets for green solutions are quickly expanding, and the Nordic region can play a crucial role in this development.

To realise this potential, NordForsk, Nordic Energy Research and Nordic Innovation have launched a new collaboration on green growth. This new initiative will focus its research and innovation in three key areas: the green transformation towards a sustainable society, sustainable energy, based on green resources, and a competitive, innovative and green business sector.


More Nordic cooperation and industry involvement required

In his final comments at the conference, Rolf Annerberg, Chair of the TRI steering committee, emphasized the need for political leadership when it comes to climate change research.


“While all the Nordic Prime Ministers that started the initiative in 2008 have left office, TRI is presenting valuable findings,” he said. “This proves that it’s possible for politicians to launch long-term research efforts on climate change.” Annerberg stated that the Top-level Research Initiative had achieved all its objectives, although he called for more involvement from industry in the future.


Nordic cooperation should also be a key element in the transformation towards a more sustainable society. According to keynote speaker Flemming G. Nielsen of the Danish Energy Agency, such cooperation on research and innovation is beneficial to both the environment and the economy.


“No country can combat climate change alone,” he stated. “The Nordic countries must continue to take leadership, because our collaboration allows us to punch over our weight in climate research.”