Hot air and cold bodies illuminated by aurorae

April 7, 2000

Sweden is restructuring its research network to focus on innovation. Michael de Laine reports on the changes and on the country's key role in arctic studies.

In the Swedish arctic, halfway between the town of Kiruna and the Swedish Space Corporation's Esrange rocket base, lies Jukkasjarvi, where the world's largest igloo, the Ice Hotel, is a centre of the arctic tourist trade. But here, tourists are involved in research at field stations.

A century after Kiruna's foundation on the basis of an iron ore mine, the town has attracted an international research community that looks at both the natural sciences and life and work in arctic and sub-arctic regions.

The first research establishment, which was set up in 1903, has since become the research stations at Abisko, for the natural sciences, and Kebnekaise, on the Tarfala glacier.

A recent Winter Cities World Conference, held in Kiruna, showed that a wide range of arctic research is conducted here and at collaborating centres. Subjects discussed included the Northern Lights, space research, nacreous clouds and environmental topics, including the ozone layer, glaciers, the impact of climate change on ecosystems and working and surviving in cold climates.

The environment and the regulation of the climate have high focus. The region has snow for up to eight months a year. Even the slightest temperature change can affect the tree line, glacier formation and melting, and the fixation and release of carbon from the tundra and boreal forests, with possible effects on global warming. It can also alter precipitation and the amount of water in lakes and rivers, which affects hydroelectricity production.

Recent measurements suggesting that the ozone layer over the arctic is thinning were put into perspective by Sheila Kirkwood of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics at Kiruna, who spoke of research in the iridescent colours of mother-of-pearl (nacreous) clouds and their effect on the ozone layer.

The relative lack of stratospheric cloud over the arctic means that the large hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic is not replicated over the North Pole. But as the nacreous clouds are stratospheric, 15km to 30km above the Earth's surface, they accelerate ozone destruction. Instruments carried by weather balloons launched from Esrange and by research aircraft from Arena Arctica, a special hangar at Kiruna airport, help study the role of these clouds.

The conference also considered Russia's Kola peninsula, where spent nuclear fuel is stored, and Novaya Zemlya, the site of nuclear weapons tests. They pose a threat to the whole arctic region, especially the Barents and Kara sea basins.

Sweden's Defence Research Establishment at Umea investigates these risks. The establishment's Ronny Bergman said environmental contamination resulted mainly from discharges from the Sellafield and La Hague fuel reprocessing plants and from Russian nuclear installations in Siberia, from radioactive deposition from Chernobyl and from atmospheric nuclear explosions in other regions.

The meeting also heard how living in the arctic affects humans. Cold, dry air is particularly conducive to the development of bronchial constriction in susceptible individuals, said a research team from Trondheim. The mechanism involved is being investigated.

Cold ambient temperature also greatly decreases muscular performance, said Juha Oksa of the Oulu Regional Institute of Occupational Health in Finland. Repetitive work in the cold could be riskier for one's health than the same work in warmer conditions.

Not all arctic research is carried out north of the Arctic Circle. Christophe Korn of the European Commission Joint Research Centre ISIS at Ispra in Italy and a team from the Cold Centre at Kiruna, and others, reported on cold effects on technological testing and functions. Many carmakers winter-test new models in northern Sweden.

In the arctic region there is also research in the Samis, the 70,000-strong indigenous population of Sapmi, which covers the northernmost areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia's Kola peninsula.

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