The Future of Life in Iceland in the Shadow of Climate Change 

Kristinn Pétur Magnússon is the scientist of the month
The Future of Life in Iceland in the Shadow of Climate Change 

Kristinn Pétur Magnússon is a professor in the Faculty of Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Iceland. His interests focus on the genetic research of organisms to better understand their evolution and how they adapt to their environments.  

The Icelandic Ptarmigan will Disappear 

The most extensive study that KP — as Kristinn Pétur is known — is working on these days is a study on the ptarmigan genome carried out in collaboration with scientists in Sweden and the US. The study is funded in part by a three-year grant from the RANNÍS Icelandic Center for Research.  

He has been researching and comparing the genetic dispositions of birds from various ptarmigan populations in North America, Greenland and Europe. The results of the study were used to predict the fate of the ptarmigan in the face of the pending climate crisis oven the coming decades. The results also indicate that the Icelandic ptarmigan will disappear if the most severe predictions for climate change become a reality. It is evident that the population size of gyrfalcons rises and falls in relation to the size of the ptarmigan population. So it should be noted that the future of gyrfalcons in Iceland is inextricably linked with how the ptarmigan fares in the coming decades.  

Feathers as Biological Specimens 

The Icelandic gyrfalcon population is small, estimated at 300-400 breeding pairs, and has a conservation status of vulnerable. Dr. Ólafur K. Nielsen of the Icelandic Institute of Natural History has closely monitored the population size of ptarmigan and gyrfalcons in Northeast Iceland and collected shed gyrfalcon feathers from territorial birds since 1983 and chicks since 2000. Feathers are biological specimens that carry the genetic variables of each bird and identifies its brood group and population. KP uses feathers to identify each gyrfalcon, its background and its territorial history.  

Reclaiming Birch Forests 

KP has also researched genetic variables in Icelandic birch trees, identifying genetic differences between birch forests in different regions of the country. His genetic studies have also revealed that one of Iceland's largest birch forests, which is new growth in Skeiðarársandur, originated from the Bæjarstaðaskógur forest. "It's important to reclaim Iceland's birch forests and the unique ecosystem they present. That's why it's best to give the forests the room they need to expand on their own or use local seeds or seeds from the same region where new birch forest will be grown," says KP. 

Who is KP? 

KP was born in Ísafjörður in 1957. His father's family comes from the Hornstrandir region and his mother's from Rangárvallasýsla. After completing his BS in biology in 1983 from the University of Iceland, KP took part in a study on Lake Þingvallavatn examining the population genetics of Arctic char. He completed his doctoral degree in 1998 from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. His doctoral thesis examined the molecular genetics of cancer. The same year KP joined deCODE genetics and began mapping the genome of Icelanders in connection with diseases of the eye, heart and circulatory system as well as diabetes. Since 2008 KP has been on the faculty at the University of Akureyri as well as a specialist at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History in Akureyri. In 2010 he was appointed to the rank of professor.