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PAGE21 Researcher Profiles: Benjamin Runkle, University of Hamburg

Ben Runkle is next in line in our researcher profile series. He is post-doctoral researcher at the University of Hamburg.

BenjaminRunkle web1Performing streamflow velocity measurements during the snowmelt period at our boreal forest site in the Komi Republic of Russia. Photo by Hannes Haupt.Name

Benjamin Runkle


Institute of Soil Science, University of Hamburg, Germany



Research Field

I study the interactions between water and the carbon cycle by quantifying lateral and vertical fluxes of both water and carbon. The lateral fluxes are the movement of surface water over the permafrost tundra and the dissolved carbon it contains, while the vertical fluxes involve the uptake of CO2 by plants as they photosynthesize and the release of CO2 and methane (CH4) by soil microbes as they respire. Understanding key controls of these fluxes helps to make better model projections so we can better clarify the role of climate change on the great stocks of frozen carbon in the permafrost. The field parts of this research occur at Samoylov station, which is in Russia's Lena River Delta.

Ben2 smallerReading out data (same boreal forest site). Photo by Norman Rüggen.How are you affiliated with the PAGE21 project and what parts of your research will be a direct input to PAGE21?

The flux measurements are a key part of working group 4's mission to quantify the exchange of greenhouse gases between the landscape's surface and the atmosphere.


What is the main challenge within this topic?

It is a challenge to provide continuous measurements from harsh northern environments. The summer growing season is relatively easy to measure, but the winters are more difficult. Fortunately the fluxes during this time are lower, but their exact behaviour requires more research.


How did it happen that you became a researcher?

I am a researcher because I love exploring how nature works and why. I'm particularly interested in providing information about landscapes that can be of use for policymakers and others who guide the way our civilizations operate.

Why do you like being researcher?

I love both the independence of working on a scientific question as well as the teamwork necessary to resolve it. One great thing about the summer research experience is to work at a research station with scientists from many fields and places. You learn so much from observing others and discussing their results in the context of your own work. It is so inspiring.

What do you like most in being a researcher?

I like the moment when you see a pattern that was previously hidden within the data. It is so fulfilling to see a hypothesis borne out by the measurements.

Ben3 smallerLooking at water quality data, Samoylov site, August 2012. Photo by Martin Drobusch.How does your typical working day look like?

No one day is the same, but the general pattern is to work on my own data analysis and writing, then have a meeting or discussion with one of the students I mentor, then to talk about some findings or logistical questions with my research group leader. I often also make phone calls about equipment orders and check on the progress of something in the laboratory.

What is the funniest response you have had when you told somebody that you are a "polar researcher"?

Everyone finds going to work in Siberia to be funny. They expect to hear that I'm being punished for some crime. I love the landscape there and think it's a real treat to work in such a remote and vast place.

What are your plans for the upcoming three / five years?

We have a lot of work to do to understand the connections between different landscape types. I hope to contribute to this by doing a mix of field work and modeling of our results.

Which expeditions do you participate this year and what will be their focus? 

This spring I go back to our Samoylov station to gain data on the snowmelt season and its processes. This is a period which is very exciting from a hydrological perspective – on the island where we work the snow will melt within a month's time, and all this water will leave the site through overland flow. The island is surrounded by branches of the Lena River in its delta, and the ice melt and subsequent flood will be dramatic to observe – there can be large rises in the river level overnight (5 m or more).

What do you usually miss the most when being on the field?

This past summer, I missed having Nutella and peanut butter, both of which I associate with tough outdoor work. I may sneak them into my luggage the next time around.

What has been the biggest challenge for you on your field trips?

Observing your responses to the polar day is really interesting and new – there's no real way to imagine how this phenomenon acts on your body's rhythm without experiencing it first-hand. It's a great boost of energy just in time for all the data collection work. I would be less eager to experience the polar night – it must be quite tiring!