The Nansen Center - a brief look back at 35 forward-looking years

Inspired by Fridtjof Nansen's lifelong forward-looking efforts for research, exploration, diplomacy, and humanitarian work, the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center was established on the 28th of November 1986. The Center aimed to use new measurements from ships, aircraft, satellites, and computer models to obtain new knowledge about the ocean and sea ice. Today, 35 years later, this is still extremely relevant. The few tools that were available back then were new and under constant testing and development. These and many more are now in daily operational use and have a far higher accuracy and better computing power compared to 1986. This gives us new and forward-looking knowledge about the climate and environmental challenges that mankind and the Earth are facing.

 Facilitation and integrated use of data from satellites, measurements on and in the sea, and numerical models have always been the Nansen Center's strength and research strategy. Illustration: NERSC.Facilitation and integrated use of data from satellites, measurements on and in the sea, and numerical models have always been the Nansen Center's strength and research strategy. Illustration: NERSC.


The initiative to establish the Nansen Center came from Ola M. Johannessen, professor at the Geophysical Institute, University of Bergen. He involved the university, UNIFOB, GC Rieber and the American oil company Tenneco in setting up the foundation. He was the Center's director until 2009. The Center started out with a group of five researchers, which now – 35 years later – has grown into an internationally recognized research center with 70 employees from 23 countries and a significant network of partners in Bergen, Norway, and world-wide.


Sea ice and satellites

The Americans and NASA were a driving force in developing satellite-based remote sensing of the Earth. With satellites in polar orbits, the entire globe could be covered almost daily with observations. Norway and the researchers at the Nansen Center had knowledge and experience from studies of the ocean areas in the high North that were covered by sea ice. By coordinating one of the largest field-oriented international research projects – the Marginal Ice Zone Experiment (MIZEX) - the researchers at the Nansen Center became among the world's foremost in obtaining new knowledge about and mapping of the Arctic Ocean. With funding from the US Office of Naval Research’s Arctic program and many participating countries, more than 200 researchers from Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, the UK, and the US, seven ships and eight aircrafts participated. MIZEX resulted in more than 100 scientific publications, several of which in the prestigious Science journal. The results included, among other crucial findings, including the early algorithms for quantitative mapping of the distribution of sea ice. Results which formed the basis for the operational satellite services that today give us the daily extent of ice in the Arctic.


Detailed forecasts of the ocean

Satellites produce enormous amounts of information and data. The same goes for newer observation technology such as drones in the air, buoys, and gliders in the water or under the sea ice. To utilize all this information in assessment, models and forecasting services, the data must be used effectively in models, so that they best reflect reality. This so-called data assimilation techniques was well established in weather forecasting, however it was little used in ocean and sea ice modeling back in the 1990ties. The data assimilation method "Ensemble Kalman Filter" was developed at the Nansen Center and first presented in Geir Evensen's doctoral dissertation in 1992. In the Nansen Center's integrated ocean, sea ice and marine ecosystem modelling system TOPAZ, several types of marine environmental data are assimilated in real time in the European Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service (CMEMS). In collaboration with the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the Institute of Marine Research, daily updated forecasts for the next ten days are published for the Nordic Seas and Arctic Ocean , including predictions of e.g. ocean currents, waves, sea ice, and plankton parameters. Also precisely updated reanalysis state simulations for the last 30 years, and annual scientific Ocean State Reports are made available for use and downstream services. Forward-looking research on data assimilation and synergies between different observation methods and data measured in the ocean or from satellites contributes constantly to new knowledge about the state, variability, and development of the marine environment. As part of the development of operational ocean forecasting at the Nansen Center, the Mohn-Sverdrup Center for Global Ocean Studies and Operational Oceanography was established in 2004, with significant financial support from philanthropist Trond Mohn.


The next generation sea ice model

The Nansen Center assesses daily the distribution of sea ice in the Arctic, based on satellite data. News of record lows of sea ice distribution are being published every year in mid-September, with an absolute minimum so far in 2012, and many near new records in the last decades. Not only is the extent of the sea ice changing, but it has also become thinner, it is broken up faster by waves and winds, and the marginal ice zone (MIZ) has shifted geographically. The sea ice is undergoing drastic change and previous sea ice models are not adapted to the new sea ice conditions in the Arctic Ocean. Spending almost ten years on understanding the sea ice dynamics, theoretical formulation, coding, testing, and validation, researchers at the Nansen Center have developed a new generation sea ice model neXtSIM - neXt generation Sea Ice Model. neXtSIM assimilates information from satellites and other data sources and the model reproduce and forecasts the sea ice regime in an Arctic Ocean in transformation. In future, neXtSIM may replace the current operational sea ice models both in pan-Arctic Ocean forecasting models for days and weeks ahead and in the climate models that provide projections for sea ice changes throughout this century.


Climate change and climate prediction

Studies of climate change and climate modeling have become an increasing and highly integrated part of the Nansen Center's research, both in the Climate Dynamics and Prediction research group and across all research groups. In 1996, the GC Rieber Climate Institute was established as a research department at the Nansen Center with significant financial support from the GC Rieber Foundation. The Center's researchers were substantial in the development and use of the first marine climate model in Bergen (Bergen Climate Model) and later in the Norwegian collaborative projects that have resulted in the Norwegian Earth System Model (NorESM) and the Norwegian Climate Prediction Model (NorCPM). The Center's climate research and model results obtained 20 years ago were forward-looking in predicting many of the changes we see in the Arctic today. Both scientific publications and individual researchers at the Nansen Center have been and are significant contributors to the knowledge base for the assessments published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Through the Bergen Climate Model, researchers at the Nansen Center provided data for the fourth main report of the IPCC (the one that led to the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007) and this year's Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to climate researcher Klaus Hasselmann, who has worked closely with the Center since start in 1986.


Climate monitoring using sound

The sea ice causes natural ambient noise in the Arctic Ocean, but the sound signal in the ocean can be used as carriers of environmental information in areas that are difficult to access for other measurements. Using the Norwegian Coast Guard's ice breaker KV Svalbard and in collaboration with several research institutions in the USA and Europe, the Nansen Center has conducted field research cruises in the Arctic Ocean. The Center's researchers have been to the North Pole onboard KV Svalbard being in 2019 the first Norwegian vessel to the North Pole, in the waters north of Svalbard, in the Fram Strait, and in the Beaufort Sea to deploy and recover oceanographic instruments and make other measurements of the ocean and sea ice. Between four kilometers deep rigs on each side of the Arctic Ocean, acoustic sound signals are sent and received that our researchers use to calculate water temperature variations across the Arctic Ocean under the sea ice cover. Compared with similar measurements made in the 1990’s, one may be able to quantify changes in the ocean temperature during the last three decades. Looking forward, the same sound signals may be an important infrastructure that can also be used to position for example oceanographic buoys and gliders fare under the sea ice. There are many challenges looking forward, but also opportunities, for both research and collaboration with business and technology companies for use of marine acoustics.


Better air quality in Bergen

The quality of the city air near the ground in Bergen is highly dependent on the weather and especially during inversion, the pollution remains close to the surface. Since 2011, the Nansen Center has therefore continuously measured the vertical air temperature profile over the top of the Geophysical Institute and analyzed these data together with Bergen municipality's measurements of the actual air quality at five sites in the city. Using a high-resolution (10 meter) atmospheric circulation model for the entire Bergen municipality, the researchers have simulated the contributions from each of the most important local pollution sources - from road traffic, private wood burning fireplaces, and ships in Port of Bergen. The research has quantified the contributions to air quality from the various sources of pollution and contributed to knowledge-based management assessing and prioritizing measures and actions, which, among other, have contributed to the decision on electrification of the Port of Bergen.


Management of scientific data

One of the first major investments in the Nansen Center was purchasing an image processing system (GOP) to process satellite data into small Polaroid images. The satellite data was downloaded at Tromsø satellite station (TSS) and then transported on magnetic tape with scheduled flights to Bergen to be processed at the Center the next day. Today, the reality is completely different, but with terabytes of different environmental data from many sources, it is essential to be able to handle and identify these in order to effectively use automatic routines for analysis and use in prediction models. This competence is and will be increasingly critical when all research data will be open and freely accessible to be used.


Science based knowledge and education

The first four peer-reviewed scientific publications was published by the Nansen Center as early as in 1987. According to the international publication database Web of Science in the last 35 years, the center's researchers have contributed to more than 900 (916 today) scientific publications, which have been cited and the results used in more than 33,000 other scientific studies. In addition, over 600 other scientific works have been published by the researchers at the Center. In collaboration with in particular the University of Bergen, 55 PhD candidates have worked at the Center towards their dissertations and 62 Master students have completed studies at the Center since 1988.

Number of publications and citations of publications from the Nansen Center's researchers, in accordance with data from Web of Science updated per November 26th, 2021.Number of publications and citations of publications from the Nansen Center's researchers, in accordance with data from Web of Science updated per November 26th, 2021. 


An important part of the Bjerknes Center

Research needs collaboration; it must be open and accessible. Research at the Nansen Center has from the beginning been dependent on good and relevant partners and collaboration. In Bergen, the Center has developed in close collaboration with the University of Bergen, the Institute of Marine Research, and later NORCE, and together they operate the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. In Norway, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the Norwegian Polar Institute, UNIS, and many universities are significant collaborative partners. Research projects through the EU Framework Programs since 1993 and the European Space Agency (ESA) and others provide access to unique expertise and research funding, which rely on a well-developed international network of scientists and other actors, which together make the Center competitive in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Unique to the Nansen Center is also the global network of international Nansen Centers that the Center has initiated together with national and international partners in Russia (established in 1992), India (1999), China (2003), South Africa (2010), and Bangladesh (2012). Researchers and students at the Nansen Centers, as well as their national partners, are an important prerequisite for joint knowledge development, recruitment, and collaboration across national borders.



The Center's strategy is based on a basic scientific understanding of the earth system and through science-based innovation contribute to providing knowledge-based advice and developing services for the benefit of society. The Center can look back on 35 years of changes in climate and the environment that have contributed to the Nansen Center's research being relevant to society. Our task is still to be forward-looking and ensure that our research, in collaboration with partners, is relevant to the knowledge that society needs to solve the challenges we face in the future. In this context, it is essential that each of our researchers has leading cutting-edge expertise and that we are able to be a facilitator to combine expertise across disciplines and institutions to together bring forward new necessary knowledge. 



The Center is funded by research projects that have been won in competitive calls from research councils, public administration or business and private donations. The most significant project revenue comes from the Research Council of Norway, the Norwegian Space Center, the Ministry of Education (Center for Climate Dynamics), EU research- and Copernicus programs, the European Space Agency (ESA), Office of Naval Research (ONR), Norwegian and international business, and private gifts from GC Rieber Foundations and Trond Mohn. From 2012, the Center was recognized as a national environmental institute with a basic grant from the Research Council of Norway and the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and the Environment. This support has gradually increased from 6%, because the Center has delivered on the evaluation criteria, to amount to 16% in 2021.



The Center, which just turned 35, is proud of its history at the same time as it is looking forward. We will continue to conduct world-leading environmental and climate research in our areas of leading expertise, and we will also be an important player, facilitator and partner contributing to the many challenges that the world faces. The city and the country need a strong Nansen Center!

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