An ecosystem guy in the era of climate change

March 22, 2024
When Rolf Anker Ims embarked on his career as a climate scientist, he was almost looked down upon. Today, climate research is one of the most important things one can do.

By: Ellen Kathrine Bludd // UiT The Arctic University of Norway


In the 1990s, when Rolf Anker Ims started researching the effects of climate change on the natural environment, this field of study was new and people were sceptical.

“It took place in a completely different academic climate from the one we now find ourselves in. There were all sorts of climate change deniers and sceptics. Even quite respected people in various research communities – people who should have known better – had very critical opinions, saying that this was pure speculation and we shouldn’t get involved.”

Rolf Anker Ims

Top photo:

Global warming poses a crisis for biodiversity in the Arctic, including waders, here represented by a ruff chick. Photo: Eva Fuglei / Norwegian Polar Institute.

Fortunately, things have gradually changed as the science has become more certain. Ims believes it has a lot to do with the international position of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but what people generally perceive is also extremely influential in terms of what they believe to be true and how they act in relation to it.

“The fact that climate change has become so tangible – that people can physically feel it and that research confirms and reinforces what they can already see – that’s where there has been a big change. And this is because climate change has advanced much further; it’s more noticeable than before. That makes it easier to be a climate scientist today, but it really wasn’t very easy when I first started,” says Ims.

Nonetheless, he points out that Norway is home to a lot of climate sceptics, especially compared to other countries. It has been suggested that this is because we produce oil, and that actually having to reduce emissions will have consequences for us.


Fieldwork in the Arctic involves a wide variety of challenges, such as these mosquito swarms on the Yamal Peninsula in Russia. Photo: Vasily Sokolov / Arctic Lab Yamal.


A call to the Arctic



Ims grew up on the eastern outskirts of Oslo, with the forests of Østmarka within easy reach.

“I guess I became interested in biology because I had nature nearby, had parents who were interested in nature, and who took me out on excursions when I was just a little tyke. They were hardly biologists and not really academics at all, but it sparked my interest in nature from a very young age,” he says.

He has always loved the natural sciences, so there were no doubts about his further studies.

“When I started at the University of Oslo in the 1980s, there was a green wave and many students wanted to study biology. There was actually a waiting list for the undergraduate biology course, and I didn’t start studying biology until after a couple of years of basic studies in mathematics, statistics, chemistry and physics. I wasn’t sure if it was possible to find a job in the biological discipline that interested me back then, namely ecology.”

Ims explains that he almost became a chemist, but realised he didn’t want to wear a white lab coat for the rest of his life.

“I decided to follow my main interest: I would stick to biology, aiming to study ecology at second degree level. One thing led to another and I started a PhD,” says Ims.

He quickly got a job as a professor in the early 1990s in connection with the establishment of the Centre for Development and the Environment following the Brundtland Commission’s report. It was a professorship in landscape ecology at the University of Oslo, with a focus on studying the effects of land degradation.


A course in environmental chemistry led by a professor named Hans Martin Seip, who was one of the leading climate scientists at the time, turned out to be an eye-opener for Rolf Ims. Seip talked about the greenhouse effect and how dramatic its consequences could be.

“It became clear to me that if we were to focus on the effects of climate change, we should start in the Arctic, because even back then we knew that the effects would be most pronounced in the north,” he says.

When Ims got the opportunity to work at the University of Tromsø (UiT) in 2001, he didn’t have to think twice. One could either apply for a professorship or one could be “called”.

“It was known as being ‘called’ back then. It sounds like a kind of priesthood or something. I’m so old that when I applied for the professorship in Oslo in  1990, I had to apply to the Norwegian Council of State, where the King himself presides,” he laughs.

But as luck would have it, Ims was actually called to UiT.

“I’d been fascinated by the Arctic and Nansen since boyhood. I had read a lot about Nansen and his achievements as a polar explorer, but also as a scientist here in the north.”

He started conducting research in Svalbard as early as 1989, while finishing his PhD in Oslo, and has continued right up to the present day. Over the course of two very intense decades from 1989 onwards, Ims and his colleagues visited Svalbard several times a year.

One of the people he has worked closely with in both Svalbard and Tromsø is the scientist Nigel Yoccoz.


Rolf A Ims with long-time collaborator Nigel G Yoccoz. Photo: Ellen Kathrine Bludd / UiT The Arctic University of Norway.


Double act


Rolf and Nigel are well-established as a research duo, and Ims sees value in working together for a long time.

“It’s important to have continuity in research, but there’s also continuity in a close collaboration that goes all the way back to the 1980s. I met Nigel in Oslo when he was a postdoc, and I was at about the same stage.”

They also ended up in the same place. It is not entirely coincidental that their offices are next door to each other. Ims was instrumental in getting Nigel up to the north.

“I held an advisory position at NINA (Norwegian Institute for Nature Research), and when their department in Tromsø was recruiting new people, I knew Nigel wanted to move from France. That’s how he ended up working here. And I followed a few years later,” says Ims.

Two years after Ims moved to Tromsø, a vacant professorship was announced; Yoccoz applied, then he too started at UiT.

“We needed his kind of expertise, and he ended up in the office next door.”

The two scientists complement each other academically, but they also like spending time together.

Another biologist Ims enjoys spending time with is his wife Eva Fuglei, who works at the Norwegian Polar Institute. The two scientists collaborate not only in life: their research intersects when it comes to arctic foxes, birds, and the ecosystem as a whole, and they have written a number of publications together.

“I met Eva here in Tromsø. We’re both from the south, but we ended up here.”

They have no plans to move south again when their research careers have ended; they feel that they are in the right place.  

“I’ve never regretted moving north, not for one second. It has to do with the professional side of things, a good university, a good academic environment – and I’m very fond of winter.”

Ims speaks of how the winters disappeared in the south. Especially in the 1990s, winters essentially vanished from where he lived, in Oslo.

“That was a mild period, so skiing conditions were really poor in Nordmarka, even at higher elevations. It was like having six months of autumn. For those of us who love white winters, snow, and skiing, it was a pretty miserable time,” says Ims.

Tromsø offers both enough snow and enough scientists to collaborate with, not least at the Fram Centre, where Ims has been involved right from the start.


Varanger. Photo: Rolf Anker Ims


Continuity in climate research


The establishment of the Fram Centre provided an opportunity to think a little differently about how climate change research could be organised, making it more long-term and more ecosystem-oriented.

“One problem you encounter when conducting research in Norway is that all of the projects only last three to five years. That’s a hopelessly short time if we want to study the effects of climate change. The very nature of climate change requires us to monitor things over long periods of time,” says Ims.

To conduct good research on the effect of climate change, a continuous flow of data from ecosystems is absolutely essential.

“Without long-term data, we don’t know anything,” says the scientist.

In dialogue with the Ministry of Education and Research, Ims and his colleagues were given the mandate to plan COAT – the Climate-Ecological Observatory for Arctic Tundra. Ims was tasked with leading COAT and designing a plan for an endeavour that would not have a time limit. They received ample resources from the Ministry of Education and Research, and after almost three years of work, the plan was ready in 2013.

“When the plan was to be implemented, funding was lacking, but we’ve kept the research alive since 2013,” says Ims.

First they received 60 million NOK from the Research Council of Norway and Tromsø Research Foundation to establish research infrastructure in Svalbard and Finnmark. Then they secured support through short-term projects, funded by various sources, which have made it possible to develop new methodologies and train new scientists who can conduct this type of research over time.

“COAT is set up to provide rapid documentation and forecasts of climate change and its effects in the High North. This allows Norway and the international community to deal with the situation through preparedness and adaptations,” says Ims.

The good news for COAT is that the Norwegian state budget for 2024 allots the project NOK 20 million to operate the climate-ecological observatory. The system relies on weather stations, cameras, microphones, and a number of manual measurements in the field that provide monitoring data on climate and ecosystems in East Finnmark and Spitsbergen. These data are fed into models that make it possible to identify causal factors behind changes and provide warnings of expected further developments.

“The thing that has been important for me and my colleagues at COAT is that we are relevant to the management of natural resources and that we are in close contact with those who need this knowledge – nature managers, people with commercial interests, and NGOs with non-profit interests in the values of nature. So, part of the COAT activities is collaboration with user groups that are tasked with managing natural resources, conservation of biodiversity, or industries such as reindeer husbandry,” says Ims.


A new monitoring method was developed in the COAT programme headed by Rolf A Ims. Here he is seen setting up a new type of camera trap that run continuously, winter and summer, and records the activity of small mammals – including the vole that hosts the parasite mentioned in Svalbardposten. Photo: Xavier Lambin / University of Aberdeen.


Collaboration with users


“Being in continuous dialogue with nature management and commercial enterprise is really important when ecosystems are in rapid change, both so research is produced quickly and so management measures that can mitigate the effects of climate change are discussed,” says Ims.

He feels that user-involved research works well when time and resources allow for an ongoing dialogue. COAT’s research has followed a protocol that clarifies roles, but users are also completely free to express their honest opinions. Such opinions can be formulated into hypotheses, which, with sufficient data, can actually be tested according to standard scientific routines.

“It often takes a long time to build up a relationship of trust,” says Ims.

Users ought to be involved in COAT from the very beginning, helping define the problems, instead of being served the researcher’s perspective on each problem as a kind of fait accompli.

“Our experience is that they ask questions that can prove to be very relevant. It’s good for them to feel that they are being listened to, and when it comes to measures, they are the practitioners who know what is administratively possible and what it costs in terms of resources to do such things,” he explains.

Without discussing with those who will implement measures, and assessing the effect of those measures, environmental research is not really management relevant.

“We have had this kind of dialogue in relation to ptarmigan management regarding hunting quotas, and with forest managers regarding the huge winter moth infestations in Finnmark, discussing with interest organisations, and with Norwegian regional and national management about how to assess and manage rapidly changing ecosystems. The user groups are quite diverse, with different expertise,” says Ims.

And then there is reindeer husbandry.

Among other things, the COAT project aims to find out how grazing conditions for reindeer and other herbivores are affected by climate change. But what is it like to collaborate with an indigenous people who rely heavily on traditional knowledge?



Collaboration with reindeer herders


“Reindeer husbandry is very heterogeneous, and many things depend on whether you have a small or a large herd, and on where in the country you are located. Reindeer owners can have very different views on research,” says Ims.

Ims has seen that young reindeer herders have greater interest in research, and has also experienced slightly different views when it comes to traditional knowledge.

“Some, especially the younger people I’ve spoken to, consider research-based knowledge about reindeer husbandry important, in combination with traditional knowledge. Because it’s a pertinent question whether traditional knowledge can solve everything in a non-traditional time. The projections suggest that the climate will soon be completely different from what anyone has experienced before,” says Ims.

The mandate of research is to predict what hasn’t yet been observed, based on what we already know. This means that research can take on a role that can be of help to reindeer owners.

“I think that many in this industry have felt that a lot of reindeer husbandry research has been forced on them by the state, questions like how many reindeer can graze sustainably and so on. However, for today’s reindeer herders, it’s important to know how environmental conditions will change beyond what they have ever observed, and what effects this can have on forage plants, parasites, and snow conditions that affect the reindeer. They have traditional knowledge about this, but they have no tradition of knowing what the vegetation or parasite infestation will look like in a climate that might be several degrees warmer in just a few decades. That’s uncharted territory,” says Ims.

Scientists are also uncertain, but they have a framework that deals with uncertainty in a systematic manner. That is what research does, it tries to reduce uncertainty about things.

Ims has found that reindeer owners are favourable towards listening to the research.

“I think it has become easier with the younger generations. That is just the way it is, new generations step in with a different perspective.”

It might also help that they see the scientists over long periods of time.

“Reindeer husbandry has had many bad experiences with scientists who come to do research on them and then leave again. That really isn’t very good. When they realise they can trust us, and when we produce results that they need, then I think we’ve done a good job,” says Ims.

COAT has now placed weather stations in eastern Finnmark, where the relationship between snow conditions and the status of winter pastures has been poorly documented.

“The fact that we have had discussions with reindeer herders about where to set up this infrastructure builds trust. They then see that we’re doing all of this for their benefit,” he says.


Vulnerable species


Climate change makes it more difficult for reindeer to access their food, but wild animals also struggle in an ecosystem that is different from what they are used to.

The arctic fox population in Finnmark has struggled in recent decades, and COAT has conducted research-based evaluations of various measures to strengthen the population. But if a species is unable to tolerate climate change, why fight so hard to help it now that we know the climate is changing to the extent that the species is doomed anyway?

“This is a dilemma we are increasingly facing with arctic species, which don’t seem to have any future if climate projections prove accurate. We may be facing a situation where the snowy owl, the arctic fox – perhaps even our beloved ptarmigan – have no future in a hundred-year perspective,” says Ims.

He says that his motivation was linked to climate change when he accepted the task from the Norwegian Environment Agency: to lead research to understand why the arctic fox is disappearing.

“COAT’s research on the arctic fox in Finnmark highlights what happens when species’ habitats are destroyed or they no longer have a place in ecosystems due to climate change. By generating robust science on the fate of species that people care about, we can also raise general awareness,” he says.

In this context, Ims views the arctic fox as a canary in the coal mine.

“Some refugia – that is, some isolated pockets where the arctic fox can survive – will probably remain, especially on high-Arctic islands such as the Svalbard archipelago. Although we won’t reach that point for quite some time, it’s important to document what is happening and where future refugia might be. This is what has motivated our research in this area, even though we don’t believe the foxes have a future in our small part of the Arctic in mainland Norway,” says the scientist.

These are dilemmas the scientists ought to speak about openly, even though it is difficult for many to accept, especially those who love the arctic fox.

“Yes, the arctic fox is very cute and on the list of endangered species, but decimating the red fox population to see if that would help the arctic fox has been controversial. However, when we explain that this measure can provide knowledge about why the arctic fox is disappearing and the red fox is gaining ground, most people understand,” says Ims.

The experiment involving organised shooting of red foxes in Finnmark is being analysed by the COAT scientists in an attempt to understand the effect of red foxes on arctic foxes, ptarmigan, and other ground-nesting birds. The experiment also provides data that may help scientists determine why the red fox has gradually become the dominant predator throughout Finnmark.

How humans have managed ecosystems over time may also have affected arctic foxes, red foxes, and other animals.


The lemming is a key species in northern mountains and tundra and is affected by climate change. These rodents have been a constant research interest for Rolf A Ims. Photo: Xavier Lambin / University of Aberdeen.


Humans in the ecosystem


Rolf Ims has studied many different animals and how they affect the ecosystem, but the animals with the strongest effect on the ecosystem today are human beings.

“We’re still part of the ecosystems, for better or worse, mostly for worse now. In a sense, we occupy a ‘super-niche’ compared to everything else, because we have the intellectual capacity to create technology so we can extract more resources from the earth than any other beings. That’s what makes us completely dominant,” says Ims.

However, we are dependent on the very ecosphere that we are about to destroy.

“Just to breathe. It’s as simple as that, just to breathe and have a climate we can actually live in,” says Ims.

He explains that even though major and rapid climate changes are expected here, the High North will not become uninhabitable in terms of temperature and precipitation. But large parts of the planet will have such high temperatures and other extreme environmental conditions that people will not be able to live there.

Ims believes that we are still animals, whose inherent biological characteristics and limitations largely govern the fate of humanity and the global ecosphere.

“Even in a modern civilisation, we are fundamentally attracted to certain things, like an animal that fattens up on berries and sweet fruits. Our biological responses aren’t always good for us. We are about to destroy our own environment because we’re in the midst of a huge materialistic party that we can’t say no to. Humans have a hard time saying no to a party, even one that will cause a hangover for a few years – or generations. That’s why I still think of humanity as a relatively poorly self-regulated population of animals,” says Ims.

However, the same technology we have used to extract resources from the earth can also be used for something positive


Eva Fuglei (second from left) and Rolf A Ims (far right) sitting with their friends the Laptander family during a project in the Russian Arctic. When a husband and wife are scientists in the same field – and are out for weeks at a time doing fieldwork – it’s good to have some joint projects. Photo: Alexander Sokolov / Arctic Lab Yamal.


The green shift


How does climate scientist Rolf Ims envision us showing consideration towards wildlife, ecosystems, reindeer husbandry, and indigenous peoples while at the same time moving towards the green shift?

“The question of who is going to bear the burden of having infrastructure like wind turbines next door is a terribly difficult dilemma. For me as a scientist, it’s important to have an objective view based on my area of expertise by documenting the effects human infrastructure has on biodiversity, reindeer husbandry, and other living resources and ecosystem services. A decisively important perspective that seems to be missing in today’s intense discourse about how human infrastructure affects nature is that impact assessments must be comprehensive in the sense that future climate change must also be included in the overall accounting,” says Ims.

As every single spot on the planet will be affected by climate change, this perspective should underlie all environmental research and management. The climate is the most decisive factor in what life on Earth looks like. For example, consider the difference between tundra, desert, and rainforest. The climate is so defining for all life and ecosystems.

“Even as we try to mitigate the effects of climate change, they will still be there. We can limit global warming, but it is likely that the global temperature will rise to maybe 2 to 4 degrees higher than the global pre-industrial average, and the increase may be three or four times greater in the High North. So, we must expect to see major effects regardless of what we manage to do,” says the scientist.

There is a lot of uncertainty about these figures and what effect the warming will actually have on the climate and nature. It is very difficult, and highly speculative, to give a long-term prediction.

“I think the best thing we can do is pay close attention to what is happening and, based on this understanding, make near-term forecasts. That’s what COAT is tasked with doing. We have always put a lot of effort into collecting data to continuously analyse how the systems respond to these changes,” says Ims.

“Our expectations for the effect of a green shift must be tempered with the knowledge that climate change is happening regardless, so the big question is: How do we minimise the overall impact? That is an important research topic, but a difficult one,” concludes Rolf Anker Ims.


This article was originally published by the Fram Forum 

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