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Top-level Research Initiative has trained a new generation of climate researchers

The Top-level Research Initiative will be remembered for two reasons if not more: it is a Nordic collaboration project that has generated considerable new knowledge about climate change and it has educated a whole new generation of young climate researchers with an interdisciplinary background that enables them to see the big picture.
Top-level Research Initiative has trained a new generation of climate researchers

Participants in the Bergen conference. From left: Jon Ove Hagen, Jukka Käyhkö, Solveig Winsvold, Richard Klein, Johannes Klein, Johanna Yletyinen, Meri Ruppel, Risto Makkonen, Jason Whittington. Photo: BR Media.

The five Nordic prime ministers whose initial efforts in 2007 led to what became the Top-level Research Initiative (TRI) should be pleased with what they set in motion. The TRI was intended to promote Nordic contributions towards a deeper understanding of ongoing climate change. During this year’s Nordic Conference on Climate Change Adaptation, held in Bergen at the end of August, it emerged that TRI researchers have thus far published close to 450 scientific articles based on TRI research. In addition, they have contributed to more than 200 publications in relevant research areas.


Many of these articles have been published in the most prestigious scientific journals. Over the next few years, the number of publications could reach nearly twice the current total. Thus, a large amount of new knowledge about global climate issues in general and the Nordic region in particular has been added to the collective body of knowledge. The final project reports also show that 79 doctoral fellows and 65 post-doctoral researchers have received funding under the TRI.


Harri Hautala of the Academy of Finland believes that the TRI’s unique collaboration model, which could be implemented thanks to the strong political backing in place, was a key factor behind this success. The TRI was actually funded according to the “common pot” principle, which means that each Nordic country contributed a share of the research funding. When awarding funding, however, allocations went to the best projects and the best researchers, regardless of national affiliation.

Mr Hautala was a member of the programme committee which steered the TRI sub-programme, “Interaction between climate change and the cryosphere”.

“Nordic universities engaged in a unique collaboration, establishing graduate level researcher training schools which helped to educate a whole new generation of Nordic climate researchers. This also laid an excellent foundation for future cooperation between climate researchers, both in the Nordic region and internationally,” stated Mr Hautala. 

Interdisciplinary climate research

“It’s important to point out that these new researchers have been trained in an interdisciplinary environment that enables them to see things in a broader perspective and employ a wider variety of methods than earlier generations of scientists. Research projects such as the Nordic Centre of Excellence for Strategic Adaptation Research (NCoE NORD-STAR) and the Nordic Centre for Research on Marine Ecosystems and Resources under Climate Change (NCoE NorMER) have encouraged biologists, climate researchers, social scientists and economists to work together across departments, institutions and national borders,” explains Jostein K. Sundet, Senior Adviser at NordForsk.

A number of the TRI research projects have also developed strategies that will ensure continuation of established courses and other educational programmes.

Better mapping of glaciers

During the conference, several researchers presented examples of TRI research findings. Research fellow Solveig Winsvold from the Department of Geosciences at the University of Oslo pointed out that efforts to chart glaciers can be improved using new satellites that can take more frequent photographs of the Earth. The importance of such mapping efforts became very clear from the data Ms Winsvold presented. She compared older paper maps from the period 1950–1980 with more recent satellite images captured in the period 1999–2006. The results, published in the journal, The Cryosphere, are disturbing:

“The glacierised area in Norway has decreased by 11 per cent over an average 30-year period. This corresponds to 326 km2, which in turn represents an annual decrease of 11 km2,” Ms Winsvold explained.

Ms Winsvold has also taken part in a study to estimate the total volume of glaciers in Norway. The study showed that glacier volume is between 257 km3 and 300 km3 and that there is a slight correlation between area and volume.

How much are sea levels rising? 

Ms Winsvold was one of 24 doctoral students participating in the Nordic Centre of Excellence for Stability and Variations of Arctic Land Ice (NCoE SVALI), headed by Professor Jon Ove Hagen from the Department of Geosciences at the University of Oslo. Seven post-doctoral researchers were also involved in the project.

One of the major research challenges remaining is to provide a reliable prognosis for how much sea levels will rise. Professor Hagen explained that the current rate of increase is 2.5 mm per year. Approximately 1 mm of this is due to thermal expansion, but the remainder is caused by the melting of glaciers and ice caps. Forty per cent of this melting comes from Greenland alone while the other glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic represent approximately 30 per cent. The Antarctic accounts for approximately 15 per cent – in spite of its large area – and the planet’s remaining glaciers account for close to an additional 15 per cent.

The question is whether sea levels will continue to rise by, for example, 20 cm or up to a metre in the years leading up to 2100.

“We currently see increasing signs of melting in the western part of the Antarctic, which is what will largely determine what happens,” Dr Hagen stated. To try to find the answer, climate researchers are working to combine observational data with increasingly more refined models.

Clearing up the meaning of collapse 

In July 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) presented a report showing that global per capita fish consumption is increasing, but that many fish stocks face potential collapse from overfishing. This triggered numerous media reports proclaiming that “the world’s oceans could be dead by 2050”. But what does it really mean for a fish stock to collapse? Doctoral student Johanna Yletyinen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre carried out a literature study and collected 18 different definitions from a total of 80 scientific articles.

“I applied these definitions to 18 fish stocks. It turned out that only two of these stocks fulfilled all fish stock “collapse” definitions. I have therefore proposed a new definition based on the spawning stock biomass shrinking, and remaining, below a certain threshold for at least one generation. This definition distinguishes between short-term shrinkage and long-term collapse,” stated Ms Yletyinen, one of the 18 doctoral students at NCoE NorMER.

NCoE NorMER’s Scientific Director, Jason Whittington, explained that the centre has also trained nine post-doctoral researchers. At present, the centre has produced at least 65 scientific articles and more are underway. NCoE NorMER has also been a catalyst behind the establishment of a number of new projects such as Green Growth Based on Marine Resources: Ecological and Socio-Economic Constraints (GreenMAR) and Marine Management and Ecosystem Dynamics under Climate Change (MARmaED).

Soot behind rising temperatures in the Arctic 

Research fellow Meri Ruppel from the University of Helsinki presented unsettling data on soot particles (black carbon) deposited on snow and ice in the Arctic. Soot is one of the primary drivers of global warming, because soot makes light, reflective surfaces in snow- or ice-covered areas darker, causing more sunlight to be absorbed.

Previous measurements have shown that atmospheric soot particles in the Arctic have decreased by approximately 40 per cent since 1989. However, Meri Ruppel’s research shows that black carbon deposition via rain and snowfall has increased, but is not detected by atmospheric measurements.

Forest fires, factory emissions, the transport industry and the burning of agricultural waste produce substantial amounts of soot. “My hypothesis is that the increased amount of soot deposited in the European Artic comes largely from flaring in oil and gas fields in Northern Russia as well as from the use of diesel vehicles,” Ms Ruppel stated.

“This is something politicians need to know about. My advice is that short-term measures aimed at mitigating climate change should focus on soot,” she says. She added that no corresponding increase on Greenland’s inland ice caps has been shown, which confirms the theory that the precipitation in the European Arctic is coming from areas in close proximity.

Meri Ruppel was one of 18 doctoral students and 15 post-doctoral researchers participating in the Nordic Centre of Excellence for Research on Cryosphere-atmosphere interactions in a changing Arctic climate (NCoE CRAICC). Researcher Risto Makkonen from the University of Helsinki, who was part of the project management team, explained that the project had 23 partners spread throughout the Nordic region.

Reindeer slow global warming

Professor Jukka Käyhkö from the University of Turku, Project Leader for the Nordic Centre of Excellence on how to preserve the tundra in a warming climate (NCoE Tundra), explained that the project has documented that grazing reindeer can protect the tundra from regrowth of brush and mountain birch. This also helps to slow global warming in the Arctic as regrowth would mean that the tundra absorbs more sunlight.

Researchers at NCoE Tundra have also maintained close dialogue with Samí actors in reindeer husbandry, who explain that it is not that difficult to adapt to climate change; they have experienced that before. What is more difficult, however, is adapting to continually new political decisions that affect the industry. Therefore, closer dialogue with the Samí people and increased cooperation across Nordic borders could strengthen the potential for reindeer to slow climate change.

Research is a must, but not sufficient in itself 

The day concluded with a final word of warning from Professor Richard Klein, co-director of NCoE NORD-STAR: There is no guarantee that better information and knowledge will lead to better decisions.

“Performing good research is not enough; we also have to ensure that these findings reach the decision-makers. There is no guarantee that research leads to better decisions unless we actively incorporate decision-makers in our studies,” Mr Klein stated, citing atmospheric scientist, Roger Pulwarty’s well-known thesis: “We should not help people do the wrong thing with better information.”