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Permafrost inspired to ponder the interaction between Arctic nature and humans

When humans change the environment via construction and land use, natural processes also change in those areas. Professor of Physical Geography Jan Hjort from the Geography Research Unit, University of Oulu points out that at a local scale these changes can also have a pleasant effect.

“Typically, cities are warmer than more rural areas and forests. If we look at the wider Arctic area, permafrost, which is land that is permanently frozen, thaws as the climate gets warmer. This in turn negatively affects buildings and construction.”

When permafrost thaws, the soil often becomes soaked and its load-bearing capacity is reduced. When structures subside, cracks and damage appear in different places, whether it is on a road, in a house or in a gas pipeline. Hjort believes that climate change and global warming should be curbed on a global scale.

Physical geography studies various natural phenomena in a spational context.

“We also study natural conditions that affect human activity or how human activity affects natural phenomena.”

Hjort thinks that disseminating research information to decision-makers is challenging. Permafrost research receives international media interest, but not so much in Finland. Natural threats to buildings, for example, are not significant on the Finnish scale.

The wider permafrost areas are located in Siberia and the Arctic in Canada and Alaska. The riskiest areas, with numerous gas and oil pipelines are located especially in the larger cities in Nenets, in the Yamal Peninsula.

“In Finland, permafrost is only found in the highest tops of fells and in the northernmost mires. In some places in Lapland, roads pass over these peatlands, as evidenced by damage on the roads.”

Inspired by a field course

The results of the researcher's work on permafrost were recently published in the prestigious international Nature Communications series. As the principal researcher on the project that modelled the degradation of permafrost, Hjort notes that 70% of the infrastructure in the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost area will be at risk by 2050. According to him, the occurrence of central permafrost landforms and their sensitivity to climate change will be modelled in the near future.

“Our intention is also to look at the permafrost conditions in past times, that is, go back several thousand years in time, and review the occurrence of permafrost during the Holocene Thermal Optimum. Then we will go even further back, to the warm period before the last glacial stage, the Eem interglacial period, which was about 120,000 years ago.”

According to Hjort, in physical geography, the goals of a study are largely determined by how the research is done in practice.

“For example, due to extensive research areas our own analysis is not based on fieldwork, but rather on the use of spatial data. Of course, the modelling of permafrost and analysis of soil temperatures are based on the temperatures measured from boreholes, but they are observations made by other researchers over several years and stored in an international database.”

Professor of Physical Geography Jan Hjort notes that he senses the smallness of humanity and the integrity of nature, for example, on the top of a fell. “That's how you immerse yourself into your research area and the subject.”
Photo: Matti Heinineva

A researcher's career was not a clear choice to Jan Hjort who comes from Espoo. However, when he began his geography studies at the University of Helsinki, cold regions began to interest him.

“Some of the courses were taught by classic, old professors who gave lectures on the themes of physical geography and inspired me to become interested in the natural processes of cold regions, such as ground frost and permafrost. Looking back, one of the defining courses for me was a field course led by Emeritus Professor Matti Seppälä in Lapland, Finland. During that course I saw different features created by frost processes, typical geomorphology of cold regions, which then ignited my interest in these phenomena.”

The young geographer was inspired by the geomorphological mapping he did for his Master’s thesis and it led him towards more demanding research. This in turn, encouraged him to continue his studies for a PhD. In his doctoral thesis, he surveyed and analysed landforms formed by frost processes in the Paistunturi wilderness area. After over a hundred field days and 1,500 kilometres of walking, fieldwork became very familiar to him.

The professor, who during his career has toured areas like Svalbard and Alaska terrain, says that travelling through and observing different environments increases knowledge and expertise for later research.

Preliminary results reveal a lot

Hjort has not made major scientific insights during his fieldwork, largely due to the goal-oriented and often physically demanding nature of working in the field. Neither have there been many mishaps. However, looking back at the early days when he was working on his doctoral thesis, he remembers a situation in which an aching Achilles tendon put a new researcher and his hiking boots into a tricky situation.

“As the wind was rattling the tent walls, I wondered whether I would have to give up the thesis work after the first field day because I could no longer walk. Luckily I also had these welly boots which I used in the field for the rest of the summer without any problems.”

After his award-winning doctoral thesis, Hjort joined a post-doctoral project at the University of Helsinki, during which he also worked as a university lecturer. In 2010, he moved to the University of Oulu to a fixed-term professor role. This role was later made permanent.

“In my research, I try to do such work which would have practical significance and some applicability value. I also enjoy and appreciate primary research, which may show its value sometime later.”

“It seems that the essence of a researcher's work is when you find something new. For a physical geographer, the finest moments are often experienced during fieldwork and gathering materials there. After collecting the data, the analysis and the preliminary results already tell a lot about whether or not there is something further to study.”

As a second motivating aspect of his work, Hjort highlights teaching and supervising thesis work. With his current Master's course in field training, he wants to encourage students to take their time to consider research questions.

“It is rewarding to see how the younger generation and potential future researchers develop over the years.”

Text: Matti Heinineva


Main photo: Jan Hjort

Last updated: 28.5.2019