In winter darkness, meters of snow cover Stordalen Mire, a spongy patch of Swedish peatland about an hour’s drive from Kiruna Airport. The ice on a nearby lake is so thick you can confidently scoot across it on a snowmobile.
But in summer, the snowpack recedes to slithers on distant peaks, wispy heads of cottongrass peek through the soil, and the sun rarely sets. On such a day, Kathryn Bennett, 22, can be found pulling the oars of a rowboat.
On the shore, bogs lie in wait for anyone who strays too casually from a precarious series of walkways made from planks.
“I have fallen in clear to the waist,” says Bennett, a postgraduate student in earth sciences from Medway, Massachusetts, and a member of the methane research programme at the University of New Hampshire. Although she laughs, her expression suggests the dunking was amusing only in retrospect.
If Pasternak is serving in the air wing of the methane army, then Bennett is one of the grunts – picking her way across the bogland day after day and kneeling at the water’s muddy edge, where tiny bubbles of methane burp periodically from a surface with a texture like used coffee grounds. Syringe in hand, she extracts samples of gas accumulating in floating, foam-reinforced funnels, which she will later test to determine how much methane they contain.
A few locals pass by in the distance picking cloudberries, and a dragonfly zips in jagged loops over the brackish water. Bennett keeps half an eye out for antlers, having been startled and delighted to see a couple of moose cooling off in the marsh two days before.
“If this continues to happen, we can’t turn it off. You can’t just stop the permafrost from thawing, because it’s already begun, which we see very clearly in places like this.”
“It’s so wild out here, you never know what you’re going to run into,” says Bennett, who traces her love for the outdoors to a childhood growing up camping and catching frogs.
Even to a first-time visitor, something about the landscape at Stordalen doesn’t look right. The walkways have subsided in places as the ground has given way, meaning Bennett’s footfalls sometimes splash in the stagnant water – which she says has crept a little higher than during her fieldwork the previous summer.
The slumping is a sign that the underlying layer of permafrost that once kept the ground rock solid has started to thaw. On drier patches of ground, long, narrow cracks have appeared. In the marshland, new ponds have formed.
Researchers in other parts of the Arctic are witnessing similar changes. A team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks reported earlier this year how amazed they had been to find millennia-old permafrost in Canada thawing 70 years earlier than models had predicted, leaving depressions resembling those at Stordalen.
“If this continues to happen, we can’t turn it off,” Bennett says, her concern suddenly audible in her voice as she pauses by one of the bogs. “You can’t just flip a switch and switch to an electric car or solar panels. You can’t just stop the permafrost from thawing, because it’s already begun, which we see very clearly in places like this.
“Then it becomes: ‘Well, what can we do?’ As scientists, what we can do is just try and understand this system and make better predictions about how it’s going to change in the future.”
Although she draws some comfort from the contribution she’s making to understanding methane’s role in climate change, she’s also keenly aware that even by flying to Sweden from the United States, she’s adding to the emissions that cause it.
“Seeing really dramatic changes like this makes me think a lot harder about the individual choices that I make and think about how can we get other people to care,” she says, nearing the end of a nine-week stint in Lapland. “It hurts me to think that I fly all the way over here to study this, but then it’s so important to tell people this story, to understand, and tell people about what’s happening here.”