Örjan Gustafsson, Photo: Eva
Örjan Gustafsson, Photo: Eva Dalin

In the summer of 2014, the ship Oden left port in northern Norway on a course to the Arctic Ocean. The ship, which is both an icebreaker and a floating research laboratory, carried Örjan Gustafsson and some 70 other researchers.

“This was likely the largest Swedish polar expedition ever”, says Örjan Gustafsson, leader of the expedition.

When the permafrost defrosts

One important part of their mission was to better understand the sediments underneath the Arctic Ocean. This sediment locks in carbon in the form of methane. Permafrost, which has kept the ocean bottom frozen for thousands of years, acts as a kind of lid. But rising temperatures are defrosting the permafrost, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. This could well intensify climate changes that are already underway.

“We have already shown than methane is being released from the ocean floor. Our hope is to know more about how this will develop in the future”.

In his everyday life, Örjan Gustafsson is a professor in biogeochemistry, a subject you don’t usually see before university level. His focus in on the global carbon cycle and how it’s affected by human activity – how do methane and other environmental gases move between land, air and water?

“Biogeochemists are like the decathletes of natural sciences. We’re not super great in any particular area, but we’re pretty good in a lot”.

Social engagement through science

He has always been socially aware – in university he studied both chemistry and politics. Recently he travelled with a delegation to China to discuss environmental problems, and he has also spoken at the EU Parliament. As a teenager he was a competitive swimmer. There’s not much swimming these days, but he does like to get out into the forest.

“I do wind sprints, hang in the trees, lift stones and generally enjoy myself.”

Örjan Gustafsson teachers biogeochemistry as well as environmental and climate science. The courses are closely connected to ongoing research, and sometimes students are invited to work as assistants. When he himself was a doctoral candidate, some students participated in a small research project.

“We were able to get the project published in a journal. Now it’s been cited over 600 times and is one of my most cited works”.

Arctic Ocean as a place of wonder

The summer’s polar expedition was packed full of collecting samples and analysing them. But it also offered the opportunity to see polar bears and the ice fields up close.

“To get away now and then - looking to the horizon and reflecting on the vastness of nature – was one of the expedition’s highlights”.