With love for Svalbard

Cecilie H. von Quillfeldt's love for the archipelago started in the mid-80s when she came as a student in marine biology. She has been hooked ever since. Almost forty years later, she still gets euphoric talking about Svalbard.

Cecile on a field trip in 2023 Photo: Børge Damsgård

Cecilie took the first chance she had to return and participated in the Svalbard course in 1986. In 1997–1999 she had her postdoc at Unis, perhaps against all odds.

She applied for a scholarship and called the then-director to ask if Unis could accommodate her if her proposal was funded. The director said “yes,” but secretly thought it would never happen.  Perhaps mainly because he thought microalgae taxonomy would be too narrow to secure funds.

“When I got the money, they had neither office space nor accommodation for me; she laughs heartily. Nevertheless, I came, and together with Vigdis Tverberg, we were the first postdocs at Unis,” she says.

Biology start-up

1994 was the first year of biology at Unis and the first time von Quillfeldt lectured here. When we met her, she came directly from a field cruise with students and lectures which she has held every year since then. An essential part of the University Centre’s strategy, and reason to be present at the archipelago, is the opportunities this provides for fieldwork. It does not hurt that Svalbard is mesmerizingly beautiful. 

“Unis has evolved from the early years in “Næringsbygget” and today. Initially, the students stayed for a year, and there were fewer, mostly Norwegian students. Now the corridors are teeming with an international, academic environment. I am gratified that Unis sees the value in me lecturing taxonomy and management every year.”

Her field of expertise is microalgae, and she points out the great diversity of species in the Arctic. There are a few dozen species of seabirds and marine mammals, while the microalgae count thousands.

“It is valuable that Unis prioritize species and species identification while at the same time putting it in an ecological context,” she explains.

A typical phytoplankton spring bloom. Photo: Philipp Assmy/Norwegian Polar Institute

Changing society and climate

For Cecilie, who has frequented the archipelago for almost 40 years, the climate changes in the Arctic are significant and most noticeable when she conducts fieldwork. She pinpoints the long-term patterns when asked to name some game-changing moments during her years. 

The ice cover has been significantly reduced, and where there used to be thick layers of algae, it is now almost nothing beneath the ice. The multi-year ice is melting, and the annual ice layer is becoming thinner, more unstable, and exposed to weather systems. As a result, the conditions worsen.

 The implications of sea ice reduction are an ongoing discussion, but we still need more data to conclude”, Cecile says. The Barents Sea may go from ice-dependent to a pelagic system, changing the species composition and ecological processes. There are no indications that the Barents Sea is about to collapse, but in the future, we may see other species and processes taking over what we know today.

The rapid temperature change can lead to a mismatch between species, where animals that depend on a particular type of algae are too late for the bloom. The speed of climate change also matters; evolution may go too slowly for the ecosystem to adapt appropriately. 

From international arenas to fieldwork in Svalbard

Von Quillfeldt works at the Norwegian Polar Institute as an environmental adviser and researcher and has contributed to the scientific basis for Norway’s integrated ocean management plans. She finds that politicians are interested in professional advice and expertise.

A few years ago, I got invited to almost all parliamentary factions to talk about the Marginal Ice Zone (MIZ). They were genuinely interested in understanding how the ocean’s ecosystems function and how the MIZ should be perceived in the management plan,” she says.

It is easy to imagine the ice edge as a physical edge, but for scientists, it is a large ocean area with many different mechanisms and ecological processes. 

There will always be political disagreements about where the southernmost border of the MIZ as a valuable and vulnerable area in the management plan should be, but the professional advice is clear that the border should be further south than today to take all ecosystem processes into account. 

With a complex workflow, the periods in Svalbard and at Unis provide a welcoming break for her.

– It is gratifying to go from heavy national and international processes to contribute to the desire to learn in inquisitive students. Taking them into the field and looking at the algae under a microscope awakens their curiosity. Moreover, the algae are beautiful, so the students get a wow experience.

Arctic Biology BioCEED Education Field work Research research