FRAM – High North Research Center for Climate and Environment

Digital edition 2023

Carrying Nansen’s legacy forward

Not a day goes by when she does not feel the gaze of Fridtjof Nansen. Professor Marit Reigstad bears the legacy of a great scientist on her shoulders. 

By: Karine Nigar Aarskog // UiT The Arctic University of Norway

Marit Reigstad looking at a photography of Fridtjof Nansen. Photo.
The photo of Fridtjof Nansen that hangs beside Marit Reigstad’s desk was presented to her by the University of Bergen at the kick-off meeting in Tromsø in March 2018. Photo: Karine Nigar Aarskog / UiT The Arctic University of Tromsø

Long term relationship with Fridtjof Nansen

Marit Reigstad has had a relationship with Fridtjof Nansen for as long as she can remember. When she was around 11–12 years old, she had the opportunity to look around his polar expedition vessel Fram and she has read several of his books – about skiing across Greenland and drifting across the Arctic Ocean. She even used one of the instruments he developed, the “Nansen bottle”, when she completed her master’s degreeat the University of Tromsø in 1992. However, she did not feel that this was enough when she was tasked with leading the research project “the Nansen Legacy”.

“I constantly have to explain the link between the project and Fridtjof Nansen and I have thoroughly familiarised myself with his work,” Reigstad explains.

This is something that characterises the professor of Marine Ecology. She is thorough and likes to dive down into the details. But she is also keen to understand the system.

“You can understand a lot by working on an individual or cellular level, but I’m much more fascinated by the big picture. Research and society need people with different perspectives. We need both those with specialist expertise and detailed knowledge and others with the ability to fit the various pieces together to form a bigger picture,” the Professor explains.

Marit Reigstad sitting in a chair. Photo.
Munch created fantastic images; he’s taken his own route, independent of what others thought. Both he and Nansen were individuals with strong opinions, and the marks they made are impressive. Photo: Karine Nigar Aarskog / UiT The Arctic University of Tromsø

Department of Arctic and Marine Biology at UiT

Since becoming project manager of the Nansen Legacy in 2018, she has spent much more of her time in the office at the Department of Arctic and Marine Biology at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. There is plenty to do, with a total budget of NOK 740 million and 280 researchers, students, and technicians from ten Norwegian research institutions. The research team includes interdisciplinary arctic/marine expertise in physical, chemical and biological oceanography, as well as geologists, modellers, and technologists working on the development of subsea robots.

“I am responsible for ensuring that we complete voyages, that we have the people and expertise we require, and that we deliver results to both the Research Council and the Ministry, as well as the various groups that need the knowledge we develop. But I also have to make sure that the people working on the project feel that it’s a great project to be part of and that they want to invest their time here,” Reigstad says.

In the office, she is surrounded by overflowing bookshelves. Reproductions of works by Edvard Munch and Marc Chagall have been relegated to the floor because there is no more wall space left. The only thing that has been given space on the wall is a photograph of Fridtjof Nansen, sitting at his desk at the Museum of Bergen sometime in the 1880s. That desk can be found at the University of Bergen, which gifted the photograph to the Nansen Legacy project when it launched in 2018.

“I can feel his gaze when I’m working. I am deeply impressed by Fridtjof Nansen, both as a researcher and as an adventurer. He was extremely talented and thorough and he was driven by his scientific ambition to identify new knowledge about how ocean currents from lower latitudes enter the Arctic Ocean,” says Reigstad.

Lofty ambitions are one thing she shares with the man the research project is named after. There are several other similarities between the two of them. Nansen was a zoologist and completed his doctorate on the nervous system of hagfish before switching to oceanography. Marit Reigstad started her research career in marine zoology and continued on to marine ecology.

“I have always loved the ocean and I find it incredibly fascinating. For thousands of years, long before we could see everything below the surface, Norway lived off the ocean and we understood how to use it and where to find the fish. That is admirable,” Reigstad says. 

For her master’s degree, Reigstad studied the link between the upper, light-filled layers of the sea where algae grow and the seabed and the organisms that live there.

“By studying what sinks down, you can learn a lot about organisms and the processes involved. If I visit you at home and take a look in your rubbish bin, I can find out what you have eaten, how you live your life, and how large a family you have.

We leave a lot of traces behind and that is also the case in the ocean,” Reigstad explains.

Great responsibility

Marit Reigstad in the lab. Photo.
The laboratory is where much of the work gets done during cruises, as here on board RV Helmer Hanssen in June 2014. Photo: CarbonBridge

The Professor, who is now 54 years old, was born in Mo i Rana but grew up in Bodø. When she was young, she did one year of social sciences at a folk high school in Hønefoss. This convinced her that her calling was in northern Norway, the ocean and the natural sciences. She came to Tromsø to study biology in 1988 and was planning to become a molecular biologist. Instead, she trained to become a marine ecologist and her life has consisted of collecting samples during voyages in the northern waters and studying the samples in the laboratory afterwards, as well as participating in and leading major research projects, often at national and international level. The last big project she led was CarbonBridge, which had a total budget of NOK 21.5 million.

“I thought that was such a lot of money and I felt a huge sense of awe and responsibility to spend it properly. I remember thinking that it was the same as the annual budget of the primary school my children attended. When we were allocated funding for the Nansen Legacy, with a total budget of NOK 740 million, it was on a completely different scale. In some ways, it’s more than you can grasp,” Reigstad says.

The process of securing the project was also different to anything else she had been involved in. The idea originated from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo at the same time as the government decided to develop a new icebreaking research vessel, which would be named Kronprins Haakon. The aim of the icebreaker was to broaden research collaboration in Norway.

“We were tasked with developing an idea into something that could become a nationwide research project. There were representatives from a number of institutions and, using our combined expertise and experience, we set out to develop a research plan that we subsequently converted into an application that could be evaluated. The Nansen Legacy project was a completely new concept and there was basically nowhere for us to apply for funding,” she explains.

Eventually, Reigstad was asked to take on the role of Project Manager and responsibility for developing the application, which was assessed by a committee established by the National Academy of Sciences in the USA. The funding would consist of 50% provided by the institutions themselves, 25% from the Ministry of Education and Research and 25% from the Research Council of Norway. The Ministry said yes in September 2017 and the Research Council approved the application in December of the same year.

“When we received the decision, we felt great relief and joy, but since it was already December and the project was due to launch in January, we also felt a bit stressed… It was a major project to launch in just a few weeks,” Reigstad says.

But it all worked out. The project launched with a kick-off meeting in Tromsø in March 2018 and the first voyage took place in August. The first PhD candidates were also on board. Early in her career, Reigstad participated in an international working group that was tasked with creating a plan for the gateways to the Arctic Ocean and the continental shelf, and that work came in handy for this project.

“It meant that I had a network and access to enormous amounts of knowledge about research in other countries and what they are interested in,” Reigstad explains.

She has also been a representative of the marine working group of the International Arctic Science Committee. She completed two four-year terms there.

Marit Reigstad speaking in public. Photo.
Marit Reigstad is happy to oblige when asked to give a lecture or participate in a debate. At Arendal in 2022, she publicly discussed the marginal ice zone with Espen Barth Eide, Minister of Climate and Environment. Photo: Karine Nigar Aarskog / UiT The Arctic University of Tromsø

“Understanding the structures for international planning and having insight into what the various countries are interested in has helped me to broaden my horizons. The Arctic is an ocean area that many nations are interested in, but as researchers we often end up working in separate areas because that is what we can secure funding for. At the same time, the ocean currents connect across the Arctic Ocean and changes in one area are therefore linked to changes in other areas and it is crucial that we have that understanding,” Reigstad explains. 

Interdisciplinary work is important

She concludes that the work on the Nansen Legacy has exceeded all expectations, particularly considering that there was no blueprint for leading or participating in such a big project.

“It has been fantastic to be part of such a large team and to have so much specialist expertise and breadth. At the same time, it can be challenging to involve everyone and there are significant expectations associated with the project. We are training a new generation of Arctic researchers and we are working to establish better collaboration between those working on Arctic research in Norway, across institutions and disciplines,” Reigstad says. 

So far, ninety young researchers have been involved in the project and have used its data for their articles and PhD theses. Work is currently under way to publish a dedicated issue of a journal containing articles addressing seasonal variations. 

“Previously, there was a significant lack of data about the winter and early spring, as we were unable to break the ice, but Kronprins Haakon has enabled us to get further into the ice during these seasons. We knew from other research projects that the ocean supports much more life during winter than we have previously assumed and we have been able to build on this to identify what the animals eat and what they do, for example. We have discovered that many of them use this period to prepare for reproduction and to produce eggs,” Reigstad explains. 

The researchers are also looking at what the effects of many concurrent influences could be. 

“Temperatures are rising, we are coming across environmental toxins and ocean acidification, new species are migrating north and all of these things are happening at once. We cannot simply list the individual influences; sometimes they also have an amplifying effect on one another. Understanding this complexity is important – and it’s also important that we are aware of what we don’t know. Using models, we also try to predict what the Barents Sea will be like over the next 20-30 years,” Reigstad explains. 

Commitment and knowledge

Although the Professor has now completed many voyages in the Arctic, she still feels a sense of reverence when she sets off. 

“I feel incredibly privileged standing on the bridge as we pass through the ice, observing the wildlife and the Arctic landscape. We humans are very small, but we have an enormous responsibility to take care of nature. We have left a big mark on the planet and we have a responsibility to do something about that.” 

This awareness means that she gladly agrees to talk about her research and participate in debates. She has become a sought-after speaker and she often speaks about the Barents Sea and the consequences climate change will have on the ecosystem.

“A young boy once asked me what I do with everything I know. That might be the most important question I have ever been asked. Because I actually have to do something with what I know. At the very least, I can disseminate the academic knowledge I have so that the politicians tasked with making decisions can do so on the basis of the best possible knowledge platform.” 

But she thinks it is just as important to talk to voters. 

“It’s up to us, the citizens in society, to elect the politicians we want to make decisions. This means it is essential that we educate the general population as well,” Reigstad says.

Although she occasionally misses doing hands-on research, she also likes administrative work. 

“I enjoy developing applications in partnership with others. Working with others brings out the best in me and hopefully I also manage to bring out the best in others,” Reigstad says.

The Reigstad Legacy

Another thing she learned to deal with early on was the uncertainty of the researcher’s life. She did not get a permanent position at the University until 2009.

“I was employed on a temporary basis for ten years, but was part of a group that was very successful at applying for grants. We managed to secure enough projects that the five group members could be financed through project funding. It’s a precarious life, not the easiest road to travel if you crave predictability. But if you can live with some degree of uncertainty and open possibilities, it can be an incredibly exciting life,” says Reigstad.

When she looks back at what she has achieved during her research career, seeing her PhD candidates submit a thesis have been the crowning moments. So far, she has experienced this 13 times. 

“Being an academic supervisor involves great responsibility and the role has been an important aspect of my research career, as I have had many administrative duties and spent a lot of my time as a project manager. Both the academic discussions with PhD candidates and being able to work through challenges and frustrations to see the results when articles are published are things I look back on very positively.” 

She doesn’t know where her path will lead next, after 1 July 2024, when the Nansen Legacy project comes to an end.

First off, she will have a two-year sabbatical from research, when she hopes to have the time to write a few articles and get back into academia. At the same time, work is under way to continue collaborations in the Arctic Ocean and to establish coordinated observations in the Arctic, as well as a system for compiling data across the nations that collect such data.

“I hope that the collaborative foundation we have developed as part of the Nansen Legacy will live on — that we have lowered the thresholds between institutions and become more familiar with each other’s infrastructure and expertise. That should enable us to make better use of every Norwegian krone allocated for research,” she says. 

Reigstad believes that this is necessary. Particularly with regard to climate change and its effects. 

“I think the planet itself will do just fine, but we face the challenge of ensuring good lives for all the people who live on it – providing enough food and using resources in such a way that they are also available to many future generations. There, we have work to do,” she says.

She therefore considers it highly positive that there is now political interest in her field: 

“We have come to realise that the oceans play a major role in the quality of life on land, and understand what our impact on the oceans can lead to. I hope and believe that we will be able to take action, but we are running out of time. A lot of action needed.” 

Marit Reigstad (54)

Professor at UiT The Arctic University of Norway

Married. Two children.

Grew up in Bodø but now lives in Tromsø.

Project manager of Norway’s largest research project – the Nansen Legacy

Photo: Karine Nigar Aarskog / UiT The Arctic University of Tromsø

Photo: Karine Nigar Aarskog / UiT The Arctic University of Tromsø

Marit Reigstad portrait. Photo.

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