Understanding climate
for the benefit of society

Professor emeritus John Inge Svendsen has been a member of the Bjerknes Centre since the beginning. Research on past climate has brought him to the Urals, finding mammoths and neanderthals in Arctic areas. Photo: Gudrun Sylte

The mammoth stays

What does one keep around when looking back at a long career? We celebrate Professor John Inge Svendsen.


In the fourth floor of the The Natural Sciences Building, John Inge Svendsen has moved from his old office. Now he shares an office, a couple of meters down the hall. He has become an emeritus, and find himself with less space for book, articles, folders, and all that is gathered thorugh a long life in academia.

"It's hard to find out what to get rid of. I've collected some seminars and pamphlets that aren't as easy to find digitally," says John Inge Svendsen, Professor of quaternary geology, now a Professor Emeritus.

In the basement the Department of Earth Science has a similar problem. Meters upon meters of old drill cores.

"It's easy to say we should throw them away, but in a recent project with the University of Tromsø, we used new methods for DNA analysis on the old cores. Then they were suddenly worth their weight in gold after all," says Svendsen.

Research is dependent on local contact

Given todays geopolitical situation, that cooperation is on hold.

"That our work in Russia is stopped is a disaster for the environmental research. It takes a long time to build a cooperation like that," says Svendsen.

Him and his colleague Jan Mangerud began working in the Ural Mountains in the middle of the 1990s, when the Soviet age had recently ended. Many local institutions was happy to work with Western institutions.

"We are dependent on professional collaborations with local institutions to perform field work in other counties. They are large logistical operations. Heavy instruments go up on the mountains. We need someone who knows the language and the culture," says Svendsen.

The first field seasons was thirty years ago. After that it has gone from one project to another.

"If you have one project in three years, it doesn't help much. We need time to solve research questions."


Recreating the Urals before the ice age

As a quaternary geologist, he works with what he calls "younger stuff". Quaternary geologists work on the past 2.5 million years, but Svendsen is mostly in the past 100.000, after the great ice ages.

The cores he speaks of comes from the Urals. The research on the Eurasian ice cover from the last ice age, became through his career an over thirty year old collaboration with Russian institutions on these mountains.

Here is one of the few places where ice hasn't scraped away sediments and depositions – like in Norway. Svendsen says there aren't really any places in Norway with sediments older than ten thousand years.

Through his work in the Urals with friend, colleague and mentor Jan Mangerud, he has defined how far the Russian ice in the last ice age went. The limitwent around the Urals, which means there were people here far earlier than many previously thought.

When Svendsen and a number of colleagues made a new reconstruction of the Eurasian ice cover in 2004, the research showed that Northern Russia was free of ice when the cover was at its largest, around 20.000 years ago. The research world calls this LGM, Last Glacial Maximum, and Svendsens reconstruction is a part of many global models as a frame for the LGM period.


Neanderthals in the Arctic

Working with archeologists, Svendsen and Mangerud found that people had crossed the Polar Circle on the Russian plains over 40.000 years ago. In Science in 2011, Svendsen and colleagues could show that neanderthals had gone thousands of kilometers further north than previously known. 

"The value of collaboration across disciplines can not be overstated. Even among people in the same institute it can be hard to understand people in other fields, like marin geology and quaternary geology. The same is true for modelling and us working in observations, we still have much to learn from each other," says Svendsen.

As a veteran of the Bjerknes Centre, he is well aquainted with getting researchers to understand each other traditions language.