Thursday, 21 March 2013

INTERACTing at the edge of the world

A guest blog by Dr Andy Sier on CEH's involvement in the EU-funded INTERACT project.

My colleague, Jan Dick, and I have just had the good fortune of travelling to Greenland. This was our first time in the country, and it was a memorable experience. But first, you’re probably wondering "why Greenland?", so let me explain.

We’re involved in a project, funded by the European Union, called INTERACT (short for International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic). This is a network of 33 terrestrial field bases in northern Europe, Russia, USA, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Scotland. INTERACT is designed to build capacity for research and monitoring in the European Arctic and beyond, by increasing  access to these research stations and facilitating cooperation between the project’s partners. INTERACT is actively building a vibrant Arctic environmental research community.
Members of the INTERACT project. 

The UK’s only site in the INTERACT network is in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. Long-term environmental monitoring of the site is carried out by CEH and Scottish Natural Heritage as part of the UK Environmental Change Network. It’s also part of the GLORIA programme examining temperature effects on vegetation across alpine Europe. So, there is a history of environmental research in the area. Our site is one of the most southerly in INTERACT, the northernmost site being at 83° N on Ward Hunt Island, Canada. Jan represents the Cairngorms site in INTERACT and we are both involved in the project’s outreach activities.

The Cairngorms ECN site, which is part of the INTERACT network
of Arctic and subarctic research sites.

Each year project members gather for an annual meeting held at one of the research stations. Our hosts this time were the Greenland Institute for Nature Research in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.

The Greenland Institute for Nature Research, hosts for the
INTERACT meeting.
(Photo by Riku Paavola)

Flying over Greenland for the first time was incredible. My first sight of what is the world’s largest island (at over two million km2) was of spectacular jagged peaks rising up from the surrounding ice and snow. Between these mountains snaked glaciers, deeply scarred by crevasses. Beyond this coastal strip was the Greenland ice cap, a wide plain of featureless ice that is two miles thick in places. The whole scene appeared incredibly beautiful but also fragile; I found myself thinking about the greenhouse gas emissions required to get us to Nuuk, and their effects on this Arctic wilderness.

Mountains in eastern Greenland.
(Photo by Andy Sier)
A glacier in eastern Greenland.
(Photo by Andy Sier)

We touched down at Kangerlussuaq, just north of the Arctic Circle, where the outside temperature was a chilly -29 °C. By comparison, Nuuk, being further to the south and nearer the coast, was a mere -8 °C.

Small iceberg in the waters around Nuuk.
(Photo by Riku Paavola)

Great progress is being made within INTERACT. I think this is largely due to the energy of those involved and the wonderful team spirit. Although I’m a newcomer to the group, I really feel among friends at INTERACT meetings, and we all seem to feed off each other’s enthusiasm. INTERACT can measure its success by the numerous research stations who are now joining as "observer stations". Ten such sites have joined already and more are in the pipeline. They all see the benefits of working together, sharing ideas and learning from other people. To me this is capacity building in action: helping to overcome the challenges of working in extreme environments and creating better facilities for the research that is so vital in this fast-changing region of our planet.

Together with our colleagues Lis and Christer, we presented our outreach work to the team. We’ve been busy on many fronts, including talking to school children and local and indigenous people. While in Nuuk, for example, we discussed hunting and fishing with two residents, a hunter and a government wildlife officer. We’ve also been creating educational hiking routes using the ‘Earthcache’ concept, developing online resources and extending our reach via social media.
A local fisherman and hunter addressed project members
(Photo by Andy Sier)
Greenland encapsulates many of the issues that make projects like INTERACT so essential. Changes are happening fast, with concerns over the fate of the Greenland ice cap and melting sea ice, increasing interest in oil and mineral exploitation, a rising population, impacts on animals and plants and changes to traditional ways of life. It may seem remote, but the Arctic is closer than we think, for its future will affect us all.

The population of Greenland is 56,000 and rising. Nuuk, the capital
is expanding rapidly. There is an acute shortage of housing, so a lot
of new apartment blocks like these are being built.
(Photo by Andy Sier)
Old Nuuk has many wooden buildings.
(Photo by Andy Sier)

Additional information

There is more information about INTERACT on the project website. The Outreach section (developed by Andy) features an image gallery and links to INTERACT’s Arctic Research blogs and Facebook page.
Find out more about the UK’s Environmental Change Network at

Staff page of Dr Andy Sier at CEH

Staff page of Dr Jan Dick at CEH

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