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Kilpisjärvi: visiting the classics

By Liz Kalaugher

Last night I slept with my fleece hat pulled down over my eyes in an attempt to stave off an early wake-up call from the Sun, which rises at about 3 am after a midnight sunset. It did nothing for my hair but at least I got a lie-in.

View from window at 11pm

The view from my window at 11 pm.

Next on the schedule was a visit to the team’s “classic” sites – where they did their original surveys on the north face of Saana fell three years ago. So far, most of the publications resulting from this work have been about these sites. Originally the plan was to study two 8 x 20 m grid plots that first summer but by the end of the field-work the team had completed six.

The following year saw another six grids pop up on the southern slopes of Saana, where the solar radiation energy plants receive could be eight times higher. In this, the third year of fieldwork, there are three new study areas – high above the northern sites, lower in the valley and on Saana’s western slopes – each with three grids. These will help the team check out different elevations as well as a site that receives a medium amount of sunlight.

Dwarf birch

Dwarf birch (pen is for scale).

The six plots on the northern face were chosen because, although close together, they’re very different. Heidi Mod gave me a tour of the highlights. The first plot we reached didn’t contain any disturbance at all. It’s flat so there’s little in the way of wind or water-related effects, and it’s not steep enough for solifluction – the slow downhill movement of water-saturated sediment due to repeated freezing and thawing. What’s more, it’s sheltered so there’s no cryoturbation – frost churning as freeze-thaw cycles move material up and down within the soil.

Survey grid on Saana's north face

The topography of the sites here varies hugely.

Moving on, we came to a site that contains both a hummock and a dip, where snow tends to linger so that it’s relatively wet. On the exposed ridge grows a fairly typical mix of dwarf birch and crowberry but in the dip are smaller species such as dwarf willow, polar willow, creeping sibbaldia and moss bell heather. It’s a fairly steep slope and there’s lots of solifluction.

In the site that’s most representative of the area, with crowberry covering 80-90% of the available space, Mod pointed out one of the 20 cm x 20 cm squares where the team did a biomass survey two years ago; the vegetation in this area hasn’t really grown back. To carry out the survey, the researchers cut away all the vegetation from a small section of every 1 metre square cell in the grid, drying out the plants in an oven back in the lab in Kilpisjärvi and weighing the results in order to calculate productivity. This year they are repeating the process in 18 cells of each grid.

Heidi Mod  by her favourite survey site

Heidi Mod by her favourite survey site.

Mod’s favourite site is very exposed, containing, as it does, a whaleback ridge. The soil is stony and coarse because wind erosion has blown away most of the smaller particles, and only tough plants such as dwarf willow, lingonberry and some grasses can survive. It’s also very dry and this, in combination with the small amount of vegetation cover, means it’s the hottest of the north face sites, reaching a soil temperature of around 15°. Just off the ridge the vegetation grows much higher.

Another of the grid plots contained a stream where water flows during the snowmelt season, and soil temperatures can be just 4°. Last but not least, was one of the most species-rich grids, with many grass species, and a peak reading of 38 species per square metre. This made surveying the vegetation here for the first time slow-going; while it took around two and a half weeks to study all five other grids, the first five rows of this one alone needed a week to themselves. Fortunately, though, some cells here contained just one or two species. Mod pointed out where water-flow disturbance occurs in a hollow and wind deflation on a ridge.

Reindeer by steps

Oh deer. It turns out I can’t stop photographing reindeer.

Next, leaving Heidi to check for Lapland Small-reed and Alpine Sweet Vernal grass, which has traditionally been used to keep clothes smelling fresh, I headed up past the team’s high sites and along the ridge of Saana. It took considerably longer to reach the summit than the record of 24 minutes, even starting part-way up. At the top I wrote my name in the book, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and watched a group who were spiralling round a pattern of concentric stone circles laid out on the floor. I found out later that spirals have been found at archaeological sites in southern Finland and may bring good luck.

There are rumours that there are more than 700 steps in total but on the way down, distracted by reindeer, I only count 610.

  • This trip was funded by an EGU science journalism fellowship.
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