BODIES OF WATER
The largest lake basins in the Saimaa Geopark area are Luonteri, Lietvesi, Yövesi and Suur-Saimaa. The deepest point of Saimaa (82 km) is located in the southeastern corner of Yövesi. The water quality is predominantly excellent, and the waters are oligotrophic and have low humus concentration.
The scenery is filled with countless rocky islands and cliffs in the north, and arenaceous eskers and shores in the south. The landscape of the bedrock and soil is heavily streaked due to the shear zones of the bedrock and movements of the ice sheet. The shores are usually bare, and plenty of phragmites flourish in the sheltered bays. The existence of isoetids such as isoetaceae (Isoëtes), water lobelia (Lobelia dortmanna) and shoreweed (Littorella uniflora) is representative of the water clarity and its bareness.
FORESTS AND FLORA
The scenery is overruled by forest. Nearly 90% of the land area is used for forestry. Of the forests, somewhat over 40% is pine, while a third consists of spruce. The rest fifth is dominated by deciduous trees. The forest growth is of the best in Finland. Some rare biotopes are found in the area as well, such as sunny and dry habitats on the eskers, transition mires and quaking bogs, springs and spring fens, boreal forests, hardwood forests, as well as forest swamps.
The Saimaa area is part of the southern taiga. The flora consists mainly of eastern and southern plant species, of which the eastern species favor continental climate. Slash-and-burn agriculture was still implemented in the area as late as in the 1930s, and as a remnant some typical species for the farming method are still found, such as the bristly bellflower (Campanula cervicaria), the clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata), the field scabious (Knautia arvensis) and the burnet-saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga). In the archipelago, temperate broadleaf and mixed forests represent the remains of grazing and the slash-and-burn agriculture of the area. Also small-leaved mine (Tilia cordata) is found in the more flourishing locations.
The flora of the esker islands is bare and the forests mainly consist of pine. The plant species found in the eskers include both typical esker plants and rarer species such as the Diantus arenarius, the Breckland thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and the spring pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vernalis).
THE FORESTS OF FINLAND AFTER THE ICE AGE
After the Weichselian glaciation approximately 11,200 years ago, the climate started to rapidly warm up. The land areas that were released from under the ice were at first covered with thin grass, which was soon replaced by tundra and its flora. While the edge of the ice sheet continuously receded up north, heath vegetation started to take over. The first tree to spread to Finland was the dwarf birch, which was soon followed by juniper, mountain ash, aspen, willow and birch. Consequently, our first forests were deciduous forests dominated by birch, while pine spread here approximately 9,000 years ago from the southeast. During that time, also the straits of Denmark were formed, and due to the continuous post-glacial rebound the Finnish shoreline also started to take its current form, although it was still situated inland of the Ostrobothnian area for no less than 100 kilometers. Only some remains of the continental ice were still found in the northern mountains of Sweden and Norway. After the ice age, an exceptionally warm interglacial period known as the Atlantic period took place approximately 9,000 to 5,000 years ago. During that time the climate of southern Finland resembled that of the current climate of Central Europe. At the beginning of this era, the flora grew denser and the first mixed- and scots pine forests were formed. Alder in particular spread explosively. Gradually the amount of all the noble deciduous trees such as hazel, elm, linden and oak increased and spread all the way up to the Oulu region. Reaching its current occurrence in the beginning of the interglacial period, spruce is a relative newcomer in Finland. At the end of the period the climate started to gradually cool down and coniferous trees started to dominate the forests. Oak and hazel forests vanished and the deciduous tree zone receded to the south. The climate became more humid and peat bogs started to develop especially in Lapland in an accelerated rate. Not many changes to our flora has happened since. From the beginning of the Common Era, the climate started to once again become more temperate, reaching its peak in the 13th century. After two hundred years however, this was followed by a rapid global cooling known as the Little Ice Age.
The fauna commonly found near the waters of the Saimaa Geopark area is comprised of backwater species. Birdlife of the area consists of the black-throated loon (Cavia arctica), mergus (Mercus) and laridae (Laridae) for example. Also in the last few years whooper swans (Cygnus Cygnus) have increased in particular. Multiple ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) nest in the area as well. The Eurasian hobby (Falco Subbuteo) nests near the sparse pine forests of the shores and islands. On the cliffs, the endangered Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo) can be found as well. The smaller bird species include Southern Savonia’s province bird, the Eurasian golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus) for instance.
The area is the breeding ground of the extremely endangered Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis). The Saimaa ringed seal is a subspecies of the ringed seal and it is only met in Finland. It is a relic that got surrounded at Saimaa due to the post-glacial rebound after the last ice age ca 8 000 years ago. The Saimaa ringed seal is the only native mammal of Finland. With successful preservation procedures, the number of Saimaa ringed seals has doubled within the last two decades. At the moment, there are approximately 400 Saimaa ringed seals, of which 100 lives in the Geopark area. Other mammals that inhabit the waters include for example the otter (Lutra lutra).
The most significant game animal of the area is elk (Alces alces). The elk population is a least-concern species and highly profitable. Elk are great swimmers and can swim to islands that are kilometers away from the shore. The elk has appeared extensively in Finnish culture ever since the prehistoric time. In fact, 30 percent of Finnish rock paintings consist of images of elk. In Finnish folk poetry, “Hiisi’s Elk” is a strong and fast elk who is almost impossible to catch.
The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and the European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), who have both benefited from the small amount of snow during the last few winters, inhabit the area as well. Also the wild boar (Sus scrofa) is constantly spreading to the area across the border from both Estonia and Russia.
Of the great beasts, the bear (Ursus arctos) population is the most prominent in the area. Also the lynx population is stable (Lynx lynx). In addition, wolves (Canis lupus) and wolverines (Gulo gulo) are encountered occasionally, while the eastern species are represented by the Siberian flying squirrel (Pteromys Volans) and the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos).
The Saimaa Geopark fish population includes the extremely endangered Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) for example. The species breeds naturally only in Kuolimo. Other endangered species of the area include the vulnerable Coregonus lavaretus and the near-threatened brown trout (Salmo trutta). The landlocked salmon (Salmo salar m. Sebago), has been categorized as extinct in the wild since its population relies on fish stocking.
WALKING WITH MAMMOTHS
As examined from the pollen and remnants of plants found from ancient sediments, during the warm interglacial period, the Eemian, which occurred between the last two ice ages approximately 130,000–120,000 years ago, the flora of southern Finland was quite similar to that of current Central Europe, and the coniferous forests extended all the way to the Arctic Sea. Thus, the Eemian fauna must have been at least as diverse as today. In fact, the Eemian fauna included large, exotic mammals such as the forest elephant, the Irish elk (also known as giant deer), the woolly rhinoceros and the European cave lion. In Finland however, the ancient ice sheet eroded and rummaged the surface of the terrain for tens of thousands of years in a way that most evidence of prehistoric animals was destroyed. Some evidence has however been found, most commonly teeth and bone fragments of mammoths. During the Weichselian glaciation Finland had warmer, interglacial periods lasting for thousands of years, so it was by no means covered with ice the entire time. It is likely that during these interstadial periods, mammoths have roamed the bare steppes of the front of the glacier. An extremely rare organic lacustrine deposit has been found in Sokli, eastern Lapland, that contains fossils of plants as well as teeth remnants of the Norwegian lemming for example, that are approximately 94,000 years old. In addition to these findings, with the exception of a single piece of deer antler and the remains of a beaver dam that possibly dates back to the Eemian, other findings of fauna from the time before or during the ice age has not been found in Finland. Plenty of evidence of the large mammals has been found in Denmark and Norway however, so it is safe to assume that mammoths have probably been a part of the fauna of southern Finland as well. Still, for now, concrete evidence is lacking.
AFTER THE ICE AGE
As the glacier melted and flora occupied the land area in Finland, also the first animals and eventually the human arrived approximately 11,000 years ago. Finnish archaeological research of fauna is especially challenging since the soil is highly acidic, so much so that even bone cannot withstand it for thousands of years without decomposing eventually – with the exception of burnt bone. Fortunately the ancient Finns have left plenty of burnt bone fragments to their bonfires and hunting grounds. Thanks to these archaeological findings, the early fauna of the Finnish postglacial period is quite well recognized. Based on the bones found on the oldest living sites, the most common game animals have been elk, beaver and seal, but also deer, rabbit, fox and marten have been hunted. Elk is one of the most prominent images found on the cave paintings of southeastern Finland, signifying its importance as a game animal of the Saimaa area during the Stone Age. Also the beaver population was extremely abundant. Beaver was, in fact, one of the most important game animals from the prehistoric era all the way to the 1800s, when it was hunted to extinction. The earliest domesticated animal was the domestic dog, which arrived along with the first humans. The dogs resembled that of today’s spitzes and the Finnish Lapphunds. The most hunted bird of the early Stone Age was the loon, whereas inland the most commonly found remnants belong to grouse. Bear and squirrel arrived to the area, probably due to the incipient interglacial period that increased the amount of mixed forests, at the beginning of the Litorina period approximately 9,000 years ago. The earliest signs of the otter also date back to this era. The significance of bird hunting seems to have emerged ca 6,000 years ago, and grouse bones became more prominent in archaeological findings. All in all, the fauna grew more diverse during the interstadial period of the Litorina period. The forest fauna did not change much during the Stone Age, however, the wild deer seems to have vanished entirely. The population of Finland decreased drastically during the late Neolithic period, which was, according to some scientists, a consequence of excessive hunting.
RINGED SEAL, A RELIC FROM THE ICE AGE
There are at least a few species in the waters of the Saimaa area that are considered as relict. Relict is a biological concept meaning a population that has previously been widespread, but currently, due to environmental changes, only occurs in a relatively small area. The most known relictual population of the area is undoubtedly the Saimaa ringed seal. The ringed seal was the first aquatic mammal of the northern Baltic during the final stages of the ice age. The ringed seal is highly adaptive, indicated by its ability to withstand the changes between the fresh and salt water in the ancient Baltic Sea. When the edge of the glacier covered the current Saimaa area, most of the dry land area was covered with the Baltic Ice Lake. The post-glacial rebound and gradual descending of the sea led to the isolation of Saimaa, and it formed into an independent lake approximately 11,000 years ago. At this point, the local Baltic ringed seal population became isolated in the waters of southeastern Finland. It is also possible that at the time, the ringed seal has occurred in a more widespread area in the inland lakes of Finland as well. Other relictual species found in the waters of Vuoksi are lake salmon, fourhorn sculpin, isopod and white amphipod, for example.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AND GLOBAL WARMING
The municipalities and provinces of the area have committed to protect Lake Saimaa and its cleanliness. The municipalities of the region signed a charter concerning the matter on June 5th 2019 in Mikkeli www.finnishlakelandforum.fi (https://saimaageopark.fi/en/yleinen-en/finnish-lakeland-statement/). Also a sewage treatment plant that utilizes MBR technology is in the making in Mikkeli, and will be, upon its completion, one of the most modern sewage treatment plants in Europe, and the entire world.
Industrial and municipal wastewater is effectively purified in the Saimaa Geopark area already. In addition, emissions of agriculture and forestry are limited for example with buffer zones.
Due to global warming the time for which lakes are covered in ice decreases and the ice grows thinner. In Lauritsala, Lappeenranta the average ice thickness has grown thinner by 25 centimeters in the last 100 years. In addition, it takes longer for Lake Saimaa to freeze and it also melts earlier.
The winter rains wash up more nutrients from snowless fields and forests into bodies of water than ever before, which can affect the quality of water. In fact, changes in water conditions have been observed all around the Northern Hemisphere. Global warming can affect the Saimaa ringed seal population as well, since the female gives birth to one pup in February or March into a snowy nest. Due to the small amounts of snow during the last few years, snow has been artificially ploughed for the seals to use as breeding lairs.
Saimaa Geopark has protected the nature of the area, and the Saimaa ringed seal in particular, by establishing nature reserves. The bodies of water as well as the archipelago are included in the European Union’s Natura 2000 network of nature protection areas https://www.ymparisto.fi/en-US. The Lake Saimaa area is also a part of the Green Belt of Fennoscandia, which extends from the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic Sea along both sides of the border between Finland and Russia. The Green Belt of Fennoscandia is in turn a part of the European Green Belt https://www.ym.fi/en-US/International_cooperation/Green_Belt_of_Fennoscandia.
In the Lake Saimaa area of the Green Belt, the emphasis is on the bodies of water, the so called “blue zone”, and nature traveling. The Green Belt is one of the most important ecological establishments in Europe, and it for example aids different species in adjusting to global warming. The Green Belt of Fennoscandia and Saimaa Geopark share the same values and goals; protecting biodiversity, developing regional businesses that acknowledge the unique nature, geological diversity, and cultural heritage of the area, as well as increasing environmental consciousness.