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Climate research station at risk of falling into the river in a climate-affected landscape

One of Denmark’s most northern research stations is in danger. The permafrost in the surrounding landscape is thawing, leaving the cliffs bare and at risk of being swept away by the river that has moved closer to the research facilities. The Zackenberg research station has become very real and sad proof of what it was designed to investigate: the speed of global warming and its impacts on nature.

2020.06.30 | Michaela Louise Thulesen

Zackenberg in northeastern Greenland is threatened by climate changes. Photo: Konsta Punkka

Higher temperatures and CO2 emissions are affecting the climate at a much faster rate than was originally predicted by the scientific community in the 90s. The ice is melting, sea levels are rising, and river bluffs and coastlines are eroding. All of this has become very real for climate researchers at Aarhus University as the Zackenberg climate research station in north-eastern Greenland is threatened by the climate’s impact on the surrounding landscape. Some of the buildings are at risk of falling into the river, which has moved 15 metres closer to the station since it was built in 1995.

"Zackenberg is facing some very real problems, which we believe are due to the climate. When the station was built in the 90s, we thought the buildings could stand for 50 years, but we’re already seeing now that we have to move or build new buildings, simply because the drastic changes in the environment are putting the station in danger. This is very tangible proof of how quickly the climate is changing," says Torben Røjle Christensen, professor and scientific director of the station.

The station is located on a riverbank in the Zackenberger Valley. Flat areas stretch out into the delta landscape, providing an ideal location for the researchers, who can land with equipment and supplies, and no one had anticipated that the riverbank would change so quickly," explains Torben Røjle Christensen.

"This underscores just how seriously we need to take the speed of climate change. The location was ideal 25 years ago. The climate can fuel changes in the landscape, but no one had imagined back then that it would go so quickly and affect the station in such a tangible way," he says.

Climate protection is necessary to continue research

Zackenberg was groundbreaking for international climate research when it opened in the 90s. Researchers were aware that future temperature increases in the Arctic could lead to changes in ecosystems and fauna, and the north-eastern part of Greenland was the perfect location to monitor how the climate impacts nature. Musk oxen, polar bears, lemmings and plants were examined closely, and over the years the ecosystem has been studied by many different researchers.

"This concerns us all. It’s important to study how the climate affects our planet, and Zackenberg has become even more important over the years, because the mounting consequences of climate change have become increasingly evident," explains Torben Røjle Christensen.

Since the beginning, the station’s research has served as an international role model for how to examine changes in the environment, and Torben Røjle Christensen has been part of the research team at Zackenberg from the very beginning. As the research station’s scientific director, he is working together with the rest of the management team to climate-proof Zackenberg for the next decades, and climate research activities will continue at the station, despite the current climate threat only halfway through its estimated lifetime.

"We will continue, even if the station falls into the river. We will stick to the original timeline for Zackenberg, but we need to rethink how we can ensure the station can survive climate change," he says.

Department of Bioscience