By Liz Kalaugher
It’s not every Sunday that ends with eating pizza on a balcony in Finnish Lapland, overlooking a lake while bathed in glorious sunshine. This wasn’t what I was expecting roughly 300 km north of the Arctic circle. Indeed, it wasn’t what some of the researchers who’ve been here before were expecting either – fortunately, despite high numbers of mosquitoes earlier in the summer, they have now disappeared, and the weather, as I expect I’ll find out soon, isn’t always this good. Changeable is the name of the game.
I’ve come to Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in north-west Finland (69°N, 20°E) as part of a European Geosciences Union (EGU) science journalism fellowship to meet Miska Luoto from the University of Helsinki. Together with his eight-strong team, Luoto is studying the plants on and around Saana mountain, including information about vegetation type, soil moisture, soil temperature, soil pH, and topography.
The aim is to model the factors that influence vegetation cover at the moment, and so be able to discover how it’s likely to change in the future. The work is part of Finland’s massive CLICHE project investigating how climate change will affect the nation’s environment, ecosystem services and society.
Vegetation change was clearly visible on the journey up here – as we travelled north from Kittilä almost 300 km to the south, the Norwegian spruce trees gradually disappeared, followed by the Scots pine. The aspen, mountain birch and willow had more staying power, and were joined by large stretches of palsa mire – Arctic bog – complete with permafrost hummocks.
But it’s still surprisingly green. The area has more vegetation than similar latitudes in the Canadian Arctic or Alaska, Luoto explained, because the Arctic Ocean is so close, which brings a milder maritime climate.
Back to the pizza. As I walked to the restaurant, reindeer wandered nearby, hooves, despite their gangly legs, making a delicate slap on the tarmac. The animals are wary of pedestrians but seem unfazed by cars and amble happily along the road. As well as annoying motorists, they’re not too popular with the researchers as they knock down the poles used to mark study areas. Although prominent on the Kilpisjärvi station flag, lemming are much less visible. Their numbers are in decline after peaking two years ago, when there were so many you could stand on them by mistake.