Starting field work on the palsa mires near Abisko

After a long journey from Bristol, we made it to the Abisko Scientific Research Station north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden – Fin and I, and all 8 pieces of luggage. After a day of setting up the lab and sorting all our field kit in the lab with scenic views of the lake and mountains we went for a first exploration tour around the closest permafrost mires with palsas (frozen peat mounds) and wet permafrost-free peatland to check the conditions for sampling. Would the collapsed, permafrost-free areas be accessible in September or too wet and soft to stand on? During our last visit in July 2022 there was still ice in less than 1m depth in the collapsed area, in September the peat had thawed all the way and made access a little more challenging.

Palsa collapsing into a thaw pond with sphagnum growth. Palsa mires are a fascinating study area due to their role as a frozen carbon store and the rapid changes with a warming climate.

Over the first field work week we visited three palsa mires near the Torneträsk lake. For my project we were sampling peat for geochemical and microbial analysis at thaw transects from dry palsas to wet collapsed areas. These thawed areas are either similar to a bog or fen if the collapse is more gentle, or a pond overgrown with sphagnum mosses. On all the sites we were visiting, we were coring the active layer of the palsa, and to the underlying sediment in the thawed area where possible. The collapsed areas were more challenging to sample in some places with peat textures ranging from soup, over chocolate mousse and sponge cake to brownie. Pore water was only collected at the edge of the collapsing palsa and the collapsed area because the palsas are usually very dry when still intact.

After the first two sampling days near Abisko we slowly settled into a routine in peat coring and we figured out the time savings by pre-filtration of pore water. The other sites were already easier and so far we managed to reach the sediment in all collapsed areas. From now on all of the field work is going to be quite repetitive in what we do, but in new and different palsa mires with surprises of What is the pH? How deep is it? What does the peat look like? What does the pore water look like? Are there any obvious indications for iron present? etc.

The entire week we have been lucky with sunny and mostly dry weather. Temperatures near 10°C during the day, clear skies with sunshine occasionally warming our back while working on palsas and clear nights for star gazing and watching the northern lights dancing above us. Incredibly excited about seeing the northern lights for the first time, we spent hours on the pier at the lake near the station. However, I discovered sufficient sleep has undeniable benefits for field work (or even just general everyday life).

In addition to the progressing field work, I’m really enjoying the changing autumn colours and meeting other researchers at the station. Catching up with other permafrost people, meeting familiar and new faces, getting some news and tips about other palsa peatlands and enjoying hot chocolate and northern lights away from time efficient zoom meetings made the week even better. After a little more than a week we are leaving the station to go further north and explore some more palsa mires in Finnmark, Norway.

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