Bo Gustafsson

Every year the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) honors an aquatic scientist whose research leads to the identification, analysis or solution of critical environmental challenges with the Ruth Patrick Award. This year’s award goes to Bo Gustafsson, oceanographer and director of the marine modelling institute Baltic Nest Institute at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre, and also affiliated at the Tvärminne Zoological Station (University of Helsinki).

– Bo Gustafsson’s outstanding work on regional-scale nutrient modelling has been instrumental to the protection and restoration of the Baltic Sea. He is a true leader in the field and a brilliant example of how to work at the boundary of science and policy, ASLO President, Roxane Maranger, notes in an announcement

Bo Gustafsson started off his career at Gothenburg University, with a PhD in Physical oceanography, and has since spent 25 years on developing models and making calculations for nutrient loading and their impacts in the Baltic Sea.

– It is truly honoring to receive this recognition from the scientific community. The earlier recipients are really prominent scientist on the international scene and it’s quite amazing, as a Baltic Sea researcher, to take part in that assembly, Gustafsson says about the Ruth Patrick award.

Important models and outreach to combat eutrophication

The modelling tools developed by Bo Gustafsson and his colleagues at the Baltic Nest Institute have played an important role in the development of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan. They enabled the calculations of the maximum allowable inputs of nutrients and country-wise reduction schemes for reaching a good environmental status in the Baltic Sea.

– We have succeeded in building a reliability on our models and calculations in HELCOM, but one part of that is to receive credibility among other scientists in the different countries, that their respective officials turn to, Gustafsson explains.

– This award is further recognizing that the work we are doing is right.

In their motivation, the Ruth Patrick committee highlights the outreach work Gustafsson have done to policymakers as well as with the public.

– His devotion at building consensus to protect the Baltic across many different cultures, shows a remarkable capacity to make the best available science applicable and accessible to society in an actionable way. This is a truly inspiring achievement, writes ASLO President Roxane Maranger.

Being accessible to media, but more importantly to officials and experts in different countries is an important part of the work, says Gustafsson.

– Building these relations, learning how to talk to decision makers and understanding their perspective takes a long time. You have to be prepared to repeatedly explain the foundations of your models and make special calculations. But it has been very interesting processes to take part in.

Ecosystems and their services still puzzling

Currently, the process of revising the Baltic Sea Action Plan is ongoing. Bo Gustafsson and other scientist have prepared a basis that includes replacing country allocated reduction targets with so called nutrient inputs ceilings, and the politicians in the HELCOM countries will take a position on the proposal later this year.

How have the general knowledge and attitudes to the large-scale problems in the Baltic Sea changed over the years you have worked with these issues?

– Earlier, there was a larger sense of optimism. People felt that ”if we put some energy into this problem it will be fixed”. The last decades the loads have decreased quite significantly. Now there is a sense of frustration that we don’t see more results in the environment. It’s a split problem in a way – on the larger scale we know how the system works, but regarding some issues we need to dig further. Our models can show what will happen in 100 years, but it’s more difficult to predict the next 20 years.

Which remaining knowledge gaps are important to fill?

– There are many things we don’t know yet about the ecosystem and how it reacts to changes, and that we are currently studying. We still need to know more about the biochemical processes in the sediments and the interactions with the animals that live there.

– My dream is that we can become more concrete in our goals. Perhaps the goals we have set are too expensive, then we might need to make trade-offs between costs and environmental status. This requires a greater precision in the models and a possibility to connect them to concrete ecosystem services.  How many more swimming days will we get in Gotland if we reduce the nutrients loads further 20 percent? I would like to be able to answers such questions.

Bo Gustafsson will receive the Ruth Patrick award at the 2021 ASLO Aquatic Sciences Virtual Meeting in June.

Text: Lisa Bergqvist

Read an interview with Bo Gustafsson and the other ASLO awardees in the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin here.