Key adaptation challenges in Finland


Climate change is influencing both the vulnerability of regions, and the everyday life, health and wellbeing of people. Adaptation challenges are most topical in urban regions. The long time-span of urban and regional planning in particular calls for charting of the risks caused by climate change. Flood risks in particular must be examined in Finland.

What do we adapt to and why?

Considered globally, Finland seems to be fairly safe from the direct impacts of climate change. This is due to Finland's biogeographical conditions, cool climate and abundant water resources. On the other hand, close to polar regions, the rise in temperature is more intense than global average, and the change in natural conditions more dramatic, accordingly.

In light of current knowledge, a gradual change in Finland's natural conditions means that winters become shorter and rainfall more abundant in winter, as the summers get warmer, hot periods longer and periodical drought is possible. On the other hand, precipitation periods become generally more intense around the year. The malignancy of these changes depends on the characteristics of change in each region and on the intensity and speed of the change. This, in turn, primarily depends on global emission trends. Active adaptation measures are required in order to benefit from the change, for instance in adaptation of flora. If the average temperatures of the Earth rise according to the worst scenarios, adverse impacts will increase rapidly in other parts of the world, and this will be reflected on Finland, too.

Consideration of the impacts of climate change on health and wellbeing has begun in the past few years in Finland, too. Particularly the health impacts of hot periods becoming more general has been discussed. The triggering factors have included the observed higher mortality rates in Central Europe during the hot periods seen in the 2000s, and similar observations in Finland in the summer 2010. A slight change in climatic conditions also influences the pleasantness of the environment, and the possibilities for recreation it offers. For instance, humid winters without snow can be assessed to have adverse impacts on the wellbeing of people [1].

Adaptation challenges greatest in urban regions

Vulnerability to extreme weather phenomena varies greatly on the local level, depending on the geographic conditions, community structure and for instance the production structure of municipalities. Certain common development trends increase the vulnerability of communities, however. Particularly the growth of urban regions exposes a greater population to the impacts of extreme weather phenomena that are hard to predict.

From the viewpoint of climate change, it is important that the built living environment is able to function in varying climate conditions, sets pleasant circumstances for every-day life and that its maintenance does not consume immoderate amounts of energy. In terms of climate change, sustainable planning of the building stock therefore entails both mitigation of change through minimising greenhouse gas emissions, and preparation for its consequences.

A compact urban structure is advantageous in terms of mitigation objectives, but it can also be vulnerable. Selection of the building site and construction materials has a big influence on the sustainability of buildings in a changing climatic conditions. Attention to the microclimate, such as windiness, sunshine angles and run-off of surface water is important when reconciling residential preferences with the requirements set by changing natural conditions on construction [2].

Need for adaptation emphasised in land use planning

Adaptation is particularly important in sectors where the decisions made are either extremely long-lived or concern functions critical for the society or the public interest. The need for adaptation review is most distinct in land-use planning. Our building stock is typically designed for a useful life of approximately 50-100 years, a period during which the effects of climate change will begin to show clearly. Therefore, climate change would have to be taken into account in planning at this stage, even though some uncertainties prevail concerning the impacts of change. Moreover, through the monopoly municipalities have on land-use planning they have good opportunities to implement their goals both as regards mitigation and adaptation.

Solutions made in land use influence the vulnerability of municipalities even for decades. Community structure once created is quite permanent, with its road networks and site layout plans. It is important both to target construction at safe areas and to draw up and comply with building regulations in areas where societal needs make it necessary to take vulnerable areas into use. Reviewing adaptation options is of particular importance as regards critical targets or ones that are hard to evacuate, such as power plants, retirement homes and hospitals.

In community planning and construction, preparation for climate change facilitates long-term sustainable development. In planning and construction, more intense attention to and exploitation of for instance geography, prevailing wind conditions and protective vegetation will create a more pleasant living environment already in the present circumstances. Green zones should remain in low-lying areas and coastal zones, to act as buffers and expansion areas for flooding of waterways and the sea. Secondly, room for green environment that balances peaks both in temperature and rainfall can be left even in densely built urban areas. For instance, green roofs retain rainwater effectively. Even paved surfaces can be made permeable to water.

The key challenge: water management

In Finland, concerns over the direct impacts of climate change focus around the flood issue [3]. Indeed, increased precipitation and the resulting flood risk is a key challenge resulting from climate change, but not the only one. In a way, all problems related to climate change involve water – in many countries of the world, the lack of it, but in Finland, mostly potential flooding and heavy precipitation. Floods are well-known natural phenomena, experienced almost every spring at places. Their connection to the climate and changes in weather conditions is easy to see. However, flood situations are predicted to be more intense in future. This is due both to the gradual change of climate (increasing precipitation) and to extreme weather phenomena (local torrential rain) that intensify due to climate change.

Even in recent years, Finland has experienced coastal flooding and flooding due to heavy rain, with significant economic impacts (see e.g. [4]). Recent examples of major flooding in Europe are many [5]. Therefore, the risks and benefits of coastal construction should be weighed carefully in Finland, too, but the risk of flooding involves other built environments, as well. Ensuring the functionality of technical systems even in extreme situations is emphasised in vulnerable areas [6].

Preparing for change is vital also as regards preservation of a safe and pleasant living environment. For instance, particularly in coastal areas the predicted impacts of climate change alter construction requirements, in order to maintain the attractiveness of these properties. A key future challenge in coastal construction is to retain pleasant conditions even during winters that are more humid and mild on the average, resulting in the sea not freezing over in an increasing number of cases. Structural challenges include in particular planning of facades and the lowest storeys so that they endure in a more humid climate. Preparation for change is partly evident in gradual economic benefits, such as lower property maintenance and repair costs.

The flood risk charting underway in the whole EU area will contribute to tackling the flooding issue and predicting future changes in water resources management. A total of 21 flood risk areas have been identified in Finland. [7]