Main Research Themes

Climate change biology
Climate change in the Arctic is fast and severe. Global warming leads to reduced sea ice cover, and on land the timing of melt and amount of snow-cover is altered. Understanding how these changes impact the structure and function of Arctic ecosystems is urgent and of high importance. The theme is intimately linked to understanding seasonality and inter-annual variability as well as the processes that shape the Arctic ecosystem of today, and will provide an arena for cross-disciplinary excellence in collaboration with other UNIS departments.

Seasonal ecology
The Arctic is characterized by extreme annual variations in light; from complete darkness in winter to 24 hours of sunlight in summer. The theme integrates ecology and evolution and examines the interactions within and between species, and with the environment in which they are embedded. Arctic organisms inhabiting temporally varying environments have evolved life history strategies that optimize timing of resource acquisition and trade-offs between growth, survival and reproduction. Seasonality and biological rhythms are intimately linked with the timing of biological events (phenology), and timing adaptations are in turn tied to life history and population dynamics.

Spatio-temporal dynamics of species and systems
Space and time, and their many scales, are fundamental dimensions of ecology and evolution. The theme revolves around phenotypic as well as genotypic variability, single-species and consumer-resource interactions, in addition to multi-species diversity. The underlying processes behind the spatio-temporal patterns will be analysed in relation to the characteristics of Arctic environments and selection pressures.

Strategy 2017–2021: Arctic Biology – at the frontier (PDF)

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Some current research projects:

Arctic Biology students on fieldwork nearby Kræmerlaguna in Bockfjorden. Photo: Tina Dahl/UNIS.
Arctic Biology students on fieldwork nearby Kræmerlaguna in Bockfjorden. Photo: Tina Dahl/UNIS.

bioCEED – Centre for Excellence in Biology Education

bioCEED develops biology educations that fill future needs in science and society.  This is achieved by connecting scientific knowledge, practical skills and societal applications throughout the biology education, and by bringing the strengths of the research culture into the educational practice. The goal is that the programs will develop basic academic skills and attitudes in students, while preparing them to solve important problems in science, industry, and society.

bioCEED has been a Centre for Excellence in Biology Education since 2014. bioCEED is a collaboration between biology programs at the University of Bergen (Department of Biology) and UNIS (Department of Arctic Biology), education science (Department of Education, UiB) and practical training (represented by The Institute for Marine Research, and including a range of private and public research, industry, and environmental management institutions), as well as our partners at home and abroad. For more information about bioCEED’s projects visit our homepage

Contact persons: Pernille Bronken Eidesen, Simone Lang and Tina Dahl.

Nansen Legacy scientists analyse ice cores on the spot at 82 North, 28 East, December 2019. Photo: Øystein Varpe/UNIS.
Nansen Legacy scientists analyse ice cores on the spot at 82 North, 28 East, December 2019. Photo: Øystein Varpe/UNIS.

The Nansen Legacy (2018-2023)

The Nansen Legacy is the Norwegian Arctic research community’s joint effort to establish a holistic understanding of a changing marine Arctic climate and ecosystem, including scientists from ten research institutions.

The UNIS Arctic Biology department’s main delivery into the project is to elucidate the diversity and ecosystem functions of unicellular eukaryotes and zooplankton in a seasonal perspective. This is done by a combination of molecular methods and experiments. UNIS is also involved in investigating the effects of environmental contaminants on zooplankton and fish. Two PhDs, Robynne Nowicki (UNIS/NPI) and Snorre Flo (UNIS/UiT), and one postdoc Konrad Karlsson are currently employed within the Nansen Legacy project at AB.

UNIS is also heading the important research activity task RA-B “Data management and synthesis”. In many ways this is, and becomes, the legacy of the project since it is vital for the collaborative project to leave behind an accessible and comprehensive data set. The data will be valuable for future scientists that pursue new knowledge, long after the project has ended. For more information, visit the Nansen Legacy homepage:

Contact persons: Anna Vader and Janne Søreide


Camera installed in Bjørndalen to survey the vegetation. Photo: Børge Damsgård/UNIS.
Camera installed in Bjørndalen to survey the vegetation. Photo: Børge Damsgård/UNIS.

BIG – Bjørndalen Integrated Gradients – a High-Arctic Field Laboratory (2019 -)

Arctic fieldwork is costly and logistically challenging. We can optimize research output, learning outcomes, and contribute to long-time monitoring by co-location of research projects, course work and student fieldwork, and invest in common instrumentation and rigid systems for registration and sharing of data in common data bases.

In Bjørndalen, the AB department is combining resources to study and link systems from the marine realm (the IsA time series station), through the coastal zone and onto land. The aim is to build a cost-effective field laboratory that creates research synergies between faculty and authentic research experiences for students. We also aim to invite external researchers to establish within our system where background knowledge exists. By adding piece by piece of information, we will increase the overall knowledge of the study system and be able to embrace interactions in the ecosystem. Over time we will be able to separate seasonal variations from climate change.

The project is funded through a range of sources but have dedicated funding through the Thon foundation (2019-2022).

Contact persons: Mads Forchhammer, Pernille Bronken Eidesen, Simone Lang, Janne E. Søreide and Anna Vader.


On the way out to the Isfjorden-Adventfjorden time series station (IsA). Photo: Snorre Flo/UNIS.
On the way out to the Isfjorden-Adventfjorden time series station (IsA). Photo: Snorre Flo/UNIS.

The Isfjorden Adventfjorden (IsA) time series station (2011-)

The UNIS IsA time series station is located in the mouth of Adventfjorden and is affected by the inflow from Isfjorden. It is thus an excellent Arctic model system for studying seasonality, interannual variation and the effects of a warming ocean climate. “Atlantification”, increased inflow of “warm” water from the North Atlantic Current, leads to less sea ice and warmer land temperatures. At IsA we are trying to understand how this affects the marine ecosystem.

The station has been sampled on a weekly to monthly basis year-round since December 2011 by the AB and AGF departments. Data recorded includes vertical CTD (temperature, salinity, fluorescence, oxygen) and light (PAR) profiles. In addition, water samples are analysed for concentrations of inorganic nutrients (nitrate, nitrite, phosphate and silicate), organic particles (POC/PON) and photosynthetic biomass (size-fractionated chlorophyll a). Microbial eukaryotes are collected on filters and analysed by molecular methods to find out who they are and what their role is in the ecosystem. Samples are also collected for microscopy. Zooplankton from the entire water column are caught in nets and either counted under microscope or analysed by DNA barcoding methods. The station and the resulting data are frequently used in courses, as well as master’s and PhD projects. Currently one AB PhD candidate, Cheshtaa Chitkara, is associated with IsA.

Long-term time series stations are critically important for understanding the effects of climate change. As far as we know the IsA station is the world’s northernmost time-series station.

Contact person: Associate Professor Anna Vader.

A graphic overview of the FACE-IT project's two-pronged approach between biological drivers and social impacts on local communities and indigenous people.

FACE-IT – an EU project about the future of Arctic coastal systems

Fjord systems in Svalbard are facing rapid cryosphere and biodiversity changes due to the ongoing climate changes. Together with other core institutions UNIS starts the cross-disciplinary project FACE-IT in 2020, aiming to deliver innovative and adaptive co-management for Arctic fjords.

FACE-IT builds upon the fact that climate induced biodiversity is at different stages in the Arctic region, and we are thus taking a pan-Arctic approach by comparisons between Svalbard, Greenland and Finnmark, Norway. In Svalbard, UNIS will be responsible for the Isfjorden system and the east coast of Svalbard and will do the comparisons with Kongsfjorden (Svalbard), with Nuup Kangerlua (Godthåpsfjorden), Qeqertarsuup Tunua (Disko Bay) and Young Sound in Greenland, and with Porsangerfjorden in Finnmark.

The project is driven by a two-pronged approach between biological drivers and social impacts on local communities and indigenous people. UNIS will focus on the changes in biodiversity in our fjords, and how this will might impact the ecosystem functions. On a bigger scale this will be linked to the societal challenges for Longyearbyen, specifically regarding current and future marine food provision, livelihood and nature-based tourism. The end outcome of the project will be adaptation strategies and governance suggestions to optimise the possibilities of the biodiversity changes, and mitigation strategies to reduce negative consequences. In Svalbard, this might for example be linked to use of marine food resources, or changes in nature-based tourism.

The project is coordinated by the University in Bremen, and will have 14 partners, included five from Norway, two from Germany and Denmark, one from France and Greenland, in addition to third country participation from the US, Canada and China.

Contact persons: Børge Damsgård, Anna Vader, Janne E. Søreide, and Mads Forchhammer.

Tourists landing on a beach in Svalbard
Tourists from Hurtigruten landing on a beach in Svalbard. Photo: Børge Damsgård/UNIS.

Citizen science projects

It is important for UNIS to share our knowledge about research in Svalbard. The AB department has used so-called citizen science approaches for several years. These are projects where non-scientists, regardless of background or knowledge, can participate in authentic research. This is also in line with the pedagogical development of active learning, where we focus on the fact that the learning outcome from active participation is far greater than listening to more theoretical lectures.

The project CRUISE#SCIENCE develops methods for research dissemination and active learning on board Hurtigruten’s circumnavigating expedition ships in Svalbard. Many of the guests have high expectations for activities, experiences and learning outcomes, and they get a unique impression of the nature and culture of the Svalbard archipelago. In our project, the guests are involved in authentic sampling of for example seawater quality and plankton communities. The samples are part of a time series conducted by UNIS. The research work is linked to practical demonstrations of equipment and methods, and to more theoretical lectures on board. The project aims to increase the understanding of research methodology, for example in the climate debate, by bridging the gap between science and ordinary people. Citizen science research is thus not only a way to increase knowledge and awareness of untouched nature in Svalbard, but also to reduce potential mistrust of scientific knowledge about climate changes and polar management. UNIS conducts 5-6 trips around Svalbard each summer, taking 200-300 samples and organize about 30 demonstrations and lectures. The evaluations show that the project provide added value for both Hurtigruten and UNIS. Collaboration between a scientific institution and the industry reduce the scientific footprints in our pristine areas, at the same time as polar research are disseminated through active involvement. More on this project (in Norwegian) here.

Contact persons: Børge Damsgård, Anna Vader, and Janne E. Søreide.

FieldPass (2019-2022): How to assess the unassessable?

Constructive alignment is the golden rule for good course design – where we start with the intended learning outcomes and align teaching and assessment to those outcomes. Learning outcomes related to e.g.  practical skills like operation of field instruments cannot be assessed by written exams. FieldPass is an interdepartmental project funded by the Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation and Quality Enhancement in Higher Education (DIKU).

The overall goal of the project is to develop and research alternative forms of assessment that is suited for field related learning outcomes. We are currently developing and testing several alternative forms of assessment, such as virtual field guides (VFGs), reflection dairies, and practical certification schemes to test practical skills. Some of the tools we develop will also be tested by our cooperation partners at the University of Bergen.

One postdoc, Kseniia Kalian and one technician Timon Brüggermann are currently employed in the projects. Several UNIS employees are involved in this project, with representatives from AG, AGF, AB, Academic Affairs and the IT departments, besides partners at UiB. The project is also tightly linked to two SFUs (Centre for Excellent Education), bioCEED and iEARTH , where UNIS is a partner.

Contact persons: Pernille Bronken Eidesen and Tina Dahl.

Sea ice in Svalbard. Photo: Janne Søreide/UNIS.
Sea ice in Svalbard. Photo: Janne Søreide/UNIS.

De-icing of Arctic Coasts: Critical or new opportunities for marine biodiversity and Ecosystem Services? ACCES

The Arctic is characterized by an extensive coastline – 34% of the total global coastline! These nearshore waters are among the most productive regions and by far the most preferred ecotype for human settlements in the Arctic. Less sea ice, increased coastal erosion and sediment loads will physically change the nearshore bottom habitats and, thus, the biodiversity of these regions with cascading effects on food webs. Consequently, the coastal ecosystem goods and services (provisional, regulatory, socio-cultural) will also encounter changes. 

This project financed by led by UNIS, comprises a strong pan-Arctic and multidisciplinary team from Norway, Poland, Canada, US and Denmark. It will synthesize existing environmental and biodiversity data and generate new knowledge from sites spanning over a wide geographical scale from the Pacific to the Atlantic Arctic. The overall goal is to determine different de-icing scenarios to allow early warning of (socio-) ecological breakpoints and regime shifts and provide scientific and social science advice for sustainable ecosystem-based management of coastal regions in the high-Arctic.

This will be accomplished by the following sub-goals:

  1. Determine to what extent changes in hydrography, nutrient dynamics, underwater light and sediment load impact primary producers’ biodiversity, distribution and bloom phenology.
  2. Identify consequences of sea ice decline on nearshore metazoan biodiversity, distribution and trophic structure.
  3. Start dialog with relevant stakeholders to document and analyse their development strategies and knowledge-needs in light of different de-icing scenarios.

This project is funded by Belmont Forum and BiodivERsA joint call for research proposals, under the BiodivScen ERA-Net COFUND programme. For more information visit the project home page:

Contact person: Associate professor Janne E. Søreide.

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