To the roots

Can one go on a three-day sabbatical? Cause I just gave myself a three-day sabbatical.

Autumn along the mountain trails in the northern Scandes, the perfect atmosphere for creative thinking

I travelled to the northern Scandes on a short trip back to the roots of my research, where it all began in 2012 and where still so much of my favourite science is happening.

I went there to think about how to shape future research plans. I went there to let the plants and the mountains talk to me, let them show me what important questions need to be answered. I went there to puzzle all pieces together of what we learned over 10 years of research up north, on the fingerprints of climate and land use change on our precious tundra vegetation.

Salix herbacea on a rocky cliff. While nature looks stable and unmovable as rocks in the area, change is there for those who see its subtle fingerprints. How long has this little willow been here? And how long can it stay?

I went there for long conversations with Keith, my closest local collaborator, while walking through the autumn landscape, surveying plots and observing changes.

The main goal of all this is trying to wrap my head around 120 years of vegetation change in the region. We have a unique situation up there, with a series of old vegetation, soil and landscape surveys ranging all the way back to 1903, plus an increasingly clear understanding of the dynamics in climate change (the local weather station has measured continuously since the 1910s) and land use change (dynamics in Saami people reindeer herding, railroad building for mining and the ups and downs of tourism over the century.

Such ideas and revelations don’t come to you that easily over yet another Zoom-meeting. Just like Alexander Von Humboldt so many years before us, you have to observe the system while you’re in it to dig the deepest. The more you get to know an ecosystem, the more questions pop up. And so I realized, when standing on a cliff where Thore Fries must have been standing all the way back in 1917: thanks to these historic datasets, we know there was no forest there, as its upper boundary was a mindboggling 200 (elevational!) m or so lower on the hill. Thanks to him, we know what plants were growing there a century ago, and when and how they were flowering.

There was no forest so high up the slope, when Thore Fries was standing there and doing his pioneering vegetation survey in 1917. There was no forest there in the 1950s either? Was it climate change that allowed this rapid upward expansion, or are there other factors at work?

The question will be: can we get to the root cause of what is driving these changes? Can we disentangle the complex interactions that are at play over time in such an ecosystem, making it into what it is now? And can that help us looking forward, to a future in which the Arctic is experiencing ever more unexpected extreme events?

Another caterpillar outbreak has been devastating to the birch trees this year, but even the crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) has now turned brown. Is there a sudden change to the system imminent?

That is something I want to find out over the coming years, as I believe that area, with its unprecedented old datasets, can be a blueprint of what is happening in all these places where we humans perhaps looked less carefully.

Campanula rotundifolia, one of the few plants flowering this late in the season. How are the flowers in the region reacting to increasingly unpredictable year-to-year changes in the weather?
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