Studying nature in extreme conditions

A modest hut for biologists, located next to a national park in remote Lapland, developed into a research station of international significance over the past half century.

Autumn foliage lights up the woods as the most distant satellite unit of the University of Helsinki's Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences celebrates its anniversary.

It is no accident that the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station was founded in northwesternmost part of Finland, in distant Lapland. Olavi Kalela, docent in zoology, began his research in the area nearly 70 years ago, because he believed the extreme climate had an impact on the fluctuations of the vole population.

“And Kilpisjärvi is nothing if not extreme. Here, the growing season is the shortest in Fenno-Scandinavia, only about a hundred days. In southern Finland, the season is twice as long,” as Antero Järvinen, the current director of the Station, describes the situation.

"Kilpisjärvi is nothing if not extreme. Here, the growing season is the shortest in Fenno-Scandinavia, only about a hundred days."

The late Kalela, who subsequently became a professor, rented a house to serve as his work space. Locals dubbed the building Hiirimökki, “mouse cabin”. Researchers lived and worked at this cabin for decades in extremely primitive conditions. There was no electricity, and in winter, the only source of heat was the oil stove.  

“The village, and consequently, the station, was only connected to the electricity grid in the early 1980s, becoming one of the last places in Finland to have electricity. Until then, we made internationally recognised scientific research by the light of oil lamps,” Järvinen reminisces.

Northern exposure

Kilpisjärvi is the only area of Finland which extends to the Scandinavian Mountains. It is only 50 kilometres from the Arctic Ocean. What’s the point of having a research station this far north?

“The Finnish network of university research stations covers all our main biotypes quite well. This is unique in the world and a significant advantage in the competitive world of science. In Kilpisjärvi, everything is extreme, from the height differences to the fluctuations in plant and animal populations,” notes Järvinen.

“Such dramatic natural fluctuations pose a challenge for scientific research. Only through decades-long regular observation can we find out what nature in the fells used to be, what it is today, and what it may be like in the future. This is exactly what we study here.”

Stuck between construction and reindeer

Climate change is not the only danger facing northern nature.

“One topical threat is the diminishing and changing of natural areas due to human involvement. Roads and other construction fragment the area. Overgrazing by reindeer is destructive to the top layers of the soil, vegetation and biodiversity. The scenery is still beautiful here, but plants and animals are slowly disappearing,” warns Järvinen.

"Organising courses at the Station is very important. If the students don’t see northern nature, they’re unlikely to get excited about it."

This highlights the significance of scientific research into northern nature. Introducing young researchers to the area is a favourite focus of activity for Järvinen.

“For example, organising courses at the Station is very important. If the students don’t see northern nature, they’re unlikely to get excited about it.” 

The Station is located next to the Malla Strict Nature Reserve, a tourist favourite. The Station will organise an open 50th anniversary celebration at the Kilpisjärvi comprehensive school on Saturday, 27 September, from 12.00.

The University of Helsinki Kilpisjärvi Biological Station:

  • Located in the municipality of Enontekiö, 69°03'N; 20°50'E
  • Founded in 1964, expanded in 1984 and 2003
  • 1,200 km to Helsinki, 600 km to Oulu and 160 km to Tromsø, Norway
  • Annual mean temperature -2.3 C
  • Snow on the ground typically from mid-October to the beginning of June
  • Polar night 25 November – 17 January, midnight sun 22 May – 25 July
  • The area is home to a wide variety of demanding Arctic-alpine plant species
  • In1994, the Kilpisjärvi lower secondary school became the first school in Finland to receive distance teaching from the University of Helsinki's teacher training school in Viikki.
  • Approximately one thousand publications have resulted from research conducted at the Station
  • Eight permanent employees, a total of 15 employees during high season
  • Approximately 100 visiting researchers every year
  • Several University of Helsinki courses are organised annually at the Station in addition to individual courses from the universities of Oulu, Jyväskylä, Eastern Finland and Tromsø as well as Finnish and international scientific seminars. The courses and seminars accommodate 10–50 students and/or researchers.
  • Focus areas of research: plant and animal ecology, water ecology, palaeolimnology, geography, geology.