Autumn in Finland

Sadakat Kadri

A birch forest near the railway line between Helsinki and Oulu

Meteorology was on my mind when I got to Helsinki last month. Vladimir Putin had just warned the world, again, that he was prepared to ‘use all weapons systems available’ in Ukraine. ‘This is not a bluff,’ he had said. ‘Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around.’ In case he meant it this time, I’d checked a weather map. The isobars were almost reassuring. A mushroom cloud from the south could certainly have drifted towards Finland, but if it did, the fallout plume would also have irradiated the Kremlin.

The devastating effects of global warming are often overlooked, and Finland, which shares a 1340-kilometre border with Russia, has good reason to focus on nearby political instability. Its governing coalition isn’t ignoring climate change though. The prime minister, Sanna Marin, recently strengthened an adaptation strategy that she has rightly said is ‘among the most ambitious in the world’. With a view to achieving carbon neutrality by 2035, fifteen years ahead of the target set by the Paris Climate Agreement, peat and coal are being steadily replaced by biofuel and wind. The Greens (who run three major ministries) have endorsed atomic energy as ‘sustainable’. Five reactors already generate more than a third of Finland’s electricity.

The distractions are acute, all the same. Ukrainian refugees and draft-dodgers from Russia can be heard every day on the streets of central Helsinki, but oil and gas imports have stopped flowing west – and the chances of fuel as usual have diminished further since Finnish plans to build a sixth nuclear reactor with Kremlin help were abandoned in May. Finns are heading towards winter with no strategic power reserve, sustainable or otherwise. As they prepare for months that are gloomy at the best of times, they don’t only face blackouts. Pellets to heat the nation’s three million saunas are running out.

The urban woodlands of northern Helsinki looked almost fiery under the low September sun. According to Juha Aalto of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, however, deforestation is accelerating, biodiversity is declining and the land sector in 2021 for the first time emitted more carbon dioxide than it absorbed. A quirk of global warming known as ‘Arctic amplification’ is meanwhile raising average temperatures at disproportionate speed. As permafrost thaws and methane evaporates, Finland’s ephemeral summers are lengthening and winters are getting slushier. Aalto’s colleague Jari Haapala reinforced the data with anecdotal evidence, an article quoting ‘Brittitabloidi The Sun’. ‘Tourists from your country fly at Christmas to Lapland,’ he chuckled, ‘then complain they’re in Crapland.’

The dispiriting forecasts didn’t come as much of a surprise, and the meteorologists made a more promising prediction: Russia’s aggression would speed the shift away from fossil fuels and boost investment in renewable energy. They weren’t inclined to accentuate the positive though. When I asked if Finland could still reverse the damage to its seasons, Haapala laughed again. ‘We have plenty of optimists,’ he said. ‘It’s just that none of them are scientists.’ A country responsible for 0.12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions can’t end the global climate emergency by itself.

The scale of the crisis was brought home when our conversation turned to the growing risk of floods in Helsinki. Finland spent the last Ice Age squashed under glaciers two kilometres thick, and its bedrock has been decompressing ever since. It’s still rebounding by several millimetres annually, which is expected to mitigate rising sea levels for a few more centuries. Good news – but it puts climate change adaptation strategies into perspective.

Geologists aren’t the only ones thinking on those timescales. Near the country’s largest atomic plant, and about 437 metres beneath it, engineers are dynamiting through granite and gneiss to build a tunnel complex known as the ‘Cavity’ (Onkalo). It’s due to store thousands of tons of lethally radioactive leftovers, including spent plutonium – and when space runs out, in about a century, the plan is to shut the doors and keep them closed for 100,000 years. It’s certainly ambitious (Tutankhamun’s tomb stayed sealed for less than a thirtieth of that time) and may even be sustainable; who knows? Again, however, it’s just a tiny fraction of what the planet needs. The world has more than four hundred reactors, and the waste from those sited inland could poison millions if it reached the water table, but Onkalo is the only storage facility that’s been designed to last longer than decades.

The weather as I cycled back from the Meteorological Institute could hardly have been better. Helsinki’s boulevards were delineated by sharp sunshine and deep shadows, and it was mild enough to sit outside a cafe on the central esplanade for coffee and a cinnamon bun. I’ve holidayed in Helsinki since childhood (my mother is Finnish) and the pit-stop inspired nostalgia – but also apprehension. It had been disheartening to hear that the country’s frozen winters and fleeting summers are falling out of kilter. I can’t listen to Sibelius or admire the luminous architecture of Alvar Aalto, let alone chat to a moody Finn, without imagining the swings back and forth between midnight sun and darkness at noon. Seasons matter – and the warmth felt unseasonable.

The distress caused by environmental degradation has been given the name solastalgia. Concerns about climate change specifically are provoking anxiety worldwide. In a ten-country study of ten thousand young adults published by the Lancet Planetary Health last year, three-quarters of the 16 to 25-year-olds interviewed said that ‘the future is frightening.’ Their despondency has political implications. It is promoting terrifying narratives, not illuminating ones, which are as likely to generate guilt or denial as constructive thinking. That can stymie collective action instead of encouraging it.

In Finland though, solastalgia, or ympäristöahdistus, has energised voters rather than paralysing them. Polls don’t only show widespread engagement with environmental issues; they consistently report high levels of trust in government. And though that doesn’t equate to optimism, it reflects pragmatism. The Finnish participants in the Lancet Planetary Health survey weren’t exactly confident – 43 per cent of them agreed with the proposition that ‘humanity is doomed’ – but overall, they were less afraid of the future than anyone else. Finns, to paraphrase an old joke, don’t much care if a glass is half-full or half-empty, so long as there’s another round.

It isn’t easy to develop upbeat ways to talk about climate change, but there are worse places to look than the books of Tove Jansson. The creator of the Moomins was fascinated by seasonal change and the forces of nature. Moominland Midwinter and Moominsummer Madness are punctuated by storms, floods, eruptions and earthquakes. And the threat assumes almost terminal proportions in Comet in Moominland, a doomsday narrative with a difference that I read for the first time when I was seven. With a cosmic fireball hurtling towards Moominvalley, the book’s heroes journey to a remote observatory to see what’s up. The sky glowers and the sea vaporises, trees suffocate, a tornado spins in and grasshoppers ravage the land. Forest creatures flee like refugees, intellectuals ignore the danger, and an astronomer who’s calculated the approximate second of impact is baffled when asked what will happen then.

Published immediately after the Second World War, Comet in Moominland was written for a country that had come close to annihilation, and it epitomises Auden’s observation that ‘there are good books which are only for adults … but there are no good books which are only for children.’ Apocalypse is averted, of course. The comet roars past, leaving nothing worse in its wake than a flattened cake. But the takeaway isn’t the inevitability of happy endings, or even the possibility of a lucky escape. It’s that disharmony is dangerous and the risks of a calamity need to be confronted – simply to protect the smaller things that make life worthwhile.

On my last day in Helsinki, I went to a hillside park at the southern tip of the capital to watch the sun slide beneath the Baltic. For a brief moment, my ympäristöahdistus abated. The prevailing winds weren’t worrying but pleasant. Maples and birches glittered in the protracted twilight, over a granite slope that’s barely moved for two billion years. Gulls and geese were gathering in swaying chevrons that would soon head south. The seasons looked to be on course. Autumn was coming.

This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.


  • 28 October 2022 at 10:17pm
    David Mason says:
    The Moomin books are always with me. A star with a tail indeed.

  • 29 October 2022 at 5:05pm
    nlowhim says:
    Nice piece. I’ll check out these books. Never heard this quote before:
    “ there are good books which are only for adults ... but there are no good books which are only for children.’ ” but I wholeheartedly agree. I don't know how it is outside the states but here there are kids books and movies that people swear are as good as any adult ones and all i can wonder is if it’s actual infantilization of a culture that is truly sick or if its another kind of sickness like marketing (i swear book reviews and reactions to any book are essentially higher brow versions of Trumps carnival barker routine