Eight Norwegian institutions, including The University Centre in Svalbard, have initiated a six-year research project that will cost more than 800 million kroner. It will be one of the largest Norwegian research investments ever and expectations are high.
"Unfortunately, we know very little about the various marine organisms, their distribution, roles and changes through the seasons. Especially with what happens during the winter there are huge knowledge gaps," said Marit Reigstad, a professor of Arctic ecology at The University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway Norwegian (UiT) and head of the project, named "Arven Etter Nansen" ("The Nanson Heritage").
Reigstad said knowledge of biology, geology and physics are essential when the future management of the vast northern areas is determined. As the ice retreats, large areas of the ocean are opening up where the petroleum, fisheries, shipping and tourism industries are expected to be active.
"We need the understanding of the systems in order to preserve the northern marine ecosystems currently experiencing major changes in climate," Reigstad said. "The goal is to be present in some frontier areas for six years to learn about variations throughout and between years."
The project is scheduled to start in 2018. The new icebreaking research ship Kronprins Haakon will play a key role, along with existing research vessels.
Researchers at UNIS will participate in several different research groups. UNIS will also be responsible for ensuring all data is collected, coordinated and available to all relevant parties.
"That we are eight different institutions that will work together will be beneficial by giving us efficiency and offering new knowledge," Reigstad said. "We will also draw from the data that already exists. UNIS Professor Jørgen Berge and his research about life during the dark season will factor into that."
Berge and his colleagues have spent recent winters following the marine life north of Svalbard. They found plenty of life, and that vital functions are taking place in a place researchers previously thought was a hibernating Arctic desert.
In addition, professor Yngve Kristoffersen and his one-year research expedition in a hovercraft in the North Pole area will be important for knowledge acquisition. He mapped the geology of the area, and filmed rare fish species and other marine life in deep waters at 89 degrees latitude north.
The "Arven Etter Nansen" project will also offer a bit of an unexpected opportunity: 50 to 60 experienced Norwegian polar researchers are about to retire and there will be a generational change as a result.
"Those who during the 1980s took part in a similar survey of the southern Barents Sea are now heading into retirement," Reigstad said. "Our new project will recruit a younger generation of candidates, which will connect old knowledge with new methods, and we expect a lot that will be new and exciting."
In addition to UiT and UNIS, participants including the University of Bergen, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, Norwegian Polar Institute, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the Institute of Marine Research, and the University of Oslo.
The institutions involved will be responsible for 50 percent of the financing. About 400 million kroner is now in place. Relevant ministries in Norway's government and The Research Council of Norway are expected to provide the remaining funds. Reigstad and her steering committee are expecting specifics in the government's next budget.
The research council is expected to announce funding this year for a major long-term coordinated effort that includes elements of the "Nansen" project.
"To bring together relevant research as a national team is a bet we like," said Christina Abildgaard, department director of the research council. "Norway is a maritime nation, and such a project is in line with the theme of our programs."
She said the council may provide an allocation of about 30 million kroner over six years to quality-assured projects. The council also plans to work to expand the budget framework and hope to receive support for that.