When the Ice Melted on the Torne


In 1693, an odd young man named Olof Ahlbom lived near the Torne River in Finland.

Finland was, and is, a cold country.  The Torne River marked the boundary between Finland, to the East, closer to Russia, and Sweden, to the West, closer to Europe.  Europe was cosmopolitan, divided into states, and settled.  Europe was the Renaissance, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, warm winters spent in Italian gardens.  Europe was fine wine and honeyed mead.  Europe was Rome, more than Greece.  Europe was timely, rather than timeless.  Russia was vast, its antediluvian forests left in place.  Russia was mystics, shamans, long winters with their great Northernness.  Russia was vodka and aqua vitae.  Russia was Greece, more than Rome. Russia was timeless rather than timely.

And young Olof was a son of Finland, born on the Finland side of the river, waking to auroras during the long, dark Winters and sleeping during the endless light of Finland’s brief, beloved Summers.

Young Olof had no way of knowing it, but the land holding the Bothnian Bay, into which his beloved Torne River flowed, was, and is, still, rising because as the Ice Age glaciers, heavy beyond conception, have slowly melted, they allowed the soil to breathe, to lift itself up to the sun, and to shift the borders of the bay, which, by 2216, will become a large freshwater lake, surrounded by the rising land.

Young Olof also had no way of knowing that the mighty Torne had been freezing every winter since the last Ice Age.  Freezing in the winter, thawing in the late Finland spring.  Freezing.  Thawing.  Freezing.  Thawing.  Like a mighty creature breathing in and breathing out, the Torne River froze and thawed, thawed and froze, froze and thawed.

When the Torne thawed, ships could move goods down from Lake Torne in northern Sweden — lumber, bear skins, mackerel, and swans– to the Bay of Bothnia.  And, then, for the three precious months before the ice froze again, the ships could carry woven goods, and apples, and pottery, and grain back up again from the Bay of Bothnia to the north.

Some said later, and no one has refuted it, that Young Olof’s father was a bit mad, difficult to predict, unconventional.  He came overland to Finland from Russia, muttering of saints, and healers, and forests where moss grew in the summer, and he won the hand of Olaf’s mother, the daughter of a harbormaster in the town of Uusikaupunki.  Cattleya saw something in him, something no one else saw, and she married him against her father’s wishes.  She wed him in early May and, by late July, she was was carrying his child.  He read poetry to her all the short Summer long, but became surly and silent that winter.  Olof was born in April, when the river and the land were still frozen.  His father went to the Orthodox church and paid for enough oil to light 5o lamps and then he wandered the town for days while his wife and child waited at home — hungry, cold, and alone.  He returned on the day of Olof’s  christening, bringing wheat cakes shaped like crescent moons, and icy vodka, and salted mackerel.  He led in a procession of fishermen who brought oysters, and salmon, and caviar, which everyone knew was peasant food.  He stood to one side as farmers wheeled in beets, and radishes, dandelion leaves from the south, and odd roots that Cattleya had never seen.  He paid for a harpist from Ireland who sang songs of ancient heroes and a drummer from some odd northern town who drummed reindeer dances that only the old people knew.  And then he disappeared again for several years.  By the time he returned, Young Olof could read and do figures.  He could name the constellations and his grandfather had taught him to read the tides.   His father brought him an astrolabe from Italy and some maps of the New World with pictures of sea monsters.

And, so, perhaps, it is not so odd that Young Olof began, in 1693, to record the dates when the springtime ice broke up on the Torne River, allowing the ships to come down from the north, their holds full of spruce, fox furs, rabbit-skins, and whale oil.  He wrote it all down in neat lines in black ink on the smooth paper of a leather-bound notebook that his grandfather had given him.  It gave Young Olof a sense of order, a feeling of control, a belief in the rhythms of time to be able to record the same event, year after year.  Some years, when the winters had been colder than usual, the ice broke up a week or two later.  Some years, when his mother’s cabbage garden had lasted a few weeks longer than usual, the ice broke up a week or two earlier.  But the pattern and the regularity comforted Young Olof in ways that he couldn’t have explained.   And so he was faithful, this son of a faithless father, recording the same event, year after year, spring after spring.  In 1715, when Olof was well into middle age, the Russians invaded Finland and Olof fled, leaving unrecorded the Torne’s thaws.  But, unlike his father who had never returned after bringing him the astrolabe, Olof returned to the Torne in 1721 and resumed his regular, dependable, European record-keeping.  When Olof died, his great nephew picked up his work and, from that day forward, Finland has, its Russian orientation notwithstanding, always produced a record-keeper, someone who will show up on time and write down the date when the ice begins to break up upon the Thune.

And, then, one day in America, there was a conference.  And in order to attend the conference, scientists had to bring records from their part of the world.  And, so, of course, the scientists from Finland, well, they brought Olof’s records.

In order to attend a workshop on lake ice records around the world at the Center for Limnology’s Trout Lake Stationscientists were required to bring their datasets. The Finnish and Japanese scientists in attendance just happened to come with extremely old and rare records of ice cover change,  Magnuson said.

Studies on climate pre-Industrial Revolution are rare. Sapna Sharma, a biologist at York University and co-author of the study, said these records provide context for what the climate was like long before the intense burning of fossil fuels.

According to the study, priests in Japan began keeping records of ice freeze dates on Lake Suwa in 1442 for religious purposes. A Finnish merchant named Olof Ahlbom began taking annual records of when the ice broke up on the Torne River in 1693. Keeping track of ice seasonability on the Torne was important due to the river’s role in trade, transportation, food and recreation.

Despite being nearly half a world apart, these two bodies of water experienced very similar trends of extreme warmth and changing ice seasonality beginning in the late 18th century. But reviewers were worried these effects were produced by localities, Magnuson said.

In response, the authors decided to enlist experts from both countries who could speak the language, talk to the people and get local information, he said.

“We felt that these things would not have the same patterns if they were a world apart and being determined largely by local factors,” Magnuson said. “Then we quantified the local factors and concluded that they were not important.”

Ice seasonality is sensitive to climatic change, which is why record-keepers have seen later freeze, earlier breakup and shorter ice cover duration since the Industrial Revolution.

The study found the increased prevalence of extreme warm years in both locations have contributed to shorter ice seasonality. From 1443 to 1700, there were only three occasions in which Lake Suwa did not completely freeze over. Suwa has frozen over only five of the past 10 years.

In the case of Finland’s Torne River, extreme warm years were identified by ice breakup dates before early May. This occurred 10 times between 1693 and 1899, but nine times between 2000 and 2013.

The implications of reduced ice cover are still fuzzy. These trends could lead to increased water temperature, algal blooms or changes to fish populations, but concrete consequences remain unclear, Sharma said.

To some, though, ice is a meaningful aspect of their heritage. Magnuson believes the most negative aspect of reduced ice cover in the north is not physical, but emotional.

“The lake is very different if it doesn’t have ice on it, but it’s not different in the sense that it’s badly damaged,” he said. “For people like myself who grew up here and love winter, ice on the lake is part of our sense of place.”

Meanwhile, somewhere in Africa, a young girl began to record rainfall on her iPad.

Picture found here.


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