Researcher profile: Ian Snowball

He gets to the bottom of environmental toxins in the Baltic Sea

The countdown has begun for the only chance this year to collect research materials. In August, Professor Ian Snowball and his team will board the survey vessel Ocean Surveyor. Its mission: To identify the risk of environmental toxins spreading from the Ångermanälven estuary.

Ian Snowball. Portrait.
Photo: Mats Kamsten

Two weeks in August – that is all the time the research team will have to take samples from contaminated sediments up to 100 metres below the surface. Among the reasons are the weather conditions and the availability of both the ship and the researchers.

“The vessel is scheduled to survey the Swedish coast only from April to October,” says Ian Snowball. “It’s not possible to take samples in Ångermanälven too early in the year, anyway, due to the risk of ice or powerful currents during the spring.”

He is leading a team of marine geologists, microbiologists, geotechnical experts, and specialists in organic pollutants and heavy metals. The researchers are taking part in TREASURE, a collaborative project that is  carried out by Uppsala University, SGU (the Geological Survey of Sweden), SGI (the Swedish Geotechnical Institute), SLU (the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) and the universities in Lund and Stockholm.

“Our main task is to assess the size of the risk that environmental toxins are being spread by various processes to surrounding aquatic environments, thus damaging the Baltic Sea ecosystem,” says Ian Snowball.

The polluted sediment has been accumulating on the seafloor for a long time. From the late 1800s until the 1970’s, paper and pulp mills discharged water containing wood and cellulose fibres into the Gulf of Bothnia. So-called ‘fibre-banks’ are where the high concentrations of fibres are found on the sea floor. These banks still contain high levels of environmental toxins such as PCB and DDT, which was revealed by the Fiberbank project carried out by SGU researchers in 2014.

“The contaminated banks are on steep, shallow coastal slopes and are often on top of unstable clay that originated during the end of the last ice-age. This makes Ångermanälven extremely susceptible to landslides,” says Ian Snowball.

“In addition to this problem, the land is presently rising by almost 1 centimetre per year, which is the fasted rate of land uplift in the whole country. When the fibre-banks rise towards the sea surface, the risk of their contaminants spreading increases.”

The physical stability of the fibre-banks is what his present research is focused upon. Ian Snowball, however, is also well acquainted with other areas of research within TREASURE. His university studies in the UK began with geography and ecology at Loughborough University of Technology. He then went to Edinburgh to work for a number of years as a researcher in the Geophysics Department. While there, he studied lake sediments and compared their magnetic properties to soil and rocks. Quaternary geology and mineral magnetism remained his main subjects at Lund University where he stayed for over 20 years. Since moving to Uppsala in 2012, however, he has gradually returned to his previous academic path.

“I’m now back to what I was originally trained to do at undergraduate level – physical geography, some cultural geography and also ecology. I sometimes teach a class in geomorphology, which deals with why landscapes look like they do and how they develop as time passes. It’s very enjoyable.”

Ian Snowball believes that his broad background has helped his ability to communicate with people from within different research areas and understand what others are doing. 

“For example, I enjoy visiting various laboratories to see how DNA is examined. DNA can be traced in old sediments. That’s a very exciting world.”

Since July 2014, Ian Snowball has been responsible for the new programme Natural Resources and Sustainable Development at the Department of Earth Sciences

What are you aiming for with this programme?

“We have to widen our horizons and build bridges between natural sciences and social sciences. This is not always easy since there are traditions which are difficult to break down.”

“The importance of natural resources is something that many people agree on. But then you can get into lengthy discussions about what sustainable development is. All of us, however, should think about what a healthy eco-system is really worth.”

Anneli Björkman


Title: Professor of Quaternary Geology

Age: 52

Lives: With his wife and daughter in a house half way between Storvreta and Vattholma outside Uppsala. They still have a house outside Kävlinge in Skåne.

Hidden talent: Was Scottish indoor long-jump champion in 1987. “I jumped just over seven metres. That was all it took to win a Scottish title, back then anyway.”

About sports: “I unfortunately injured my knee in the early 1990s, which ended my athletics career. I was an athletics coach for a group of girls in IFK Lund for a few years. My daughter now trains with Uppsala IF and I go along quite often to watch her train. I can manage to warm up with them, sometimes.  At such times, I wonder whether I should make a comeback as a coach. I’ve got quite a lot of experience of athletics coaching, especially in long-jump and triple jump.”

Spare time: “I quite like motorcycles. I’ve just bought a new one, a small, semi-sporty Triumph. The last time I bought one was over ten years ago. I thought I had to buy a British bike at least once and not just Japanese all the time. I look forward to riding down to Skåne during the summer holidays – and back again!”