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Another green Christmas: Finland’s fauna must adapt quickly to changing climate

Temperatures this December have broken records in Finland and the ground is still snow-free in the south. Climate change scientists warn that warm winters like the one at present may become more and more familiar in the future. Finland’s wild animals will have to adapt quickly or face the consequences.

Orava puussa.
Image: Ville Välimäki / Yle

Hämeenlinna teacher and nature enthusiast Panu Villanen says the changing climate presents many risks to all of Finnish nature’s living creatures.

“All of the organisms that live at this latitude have adjusted over a long period to cold winters. Their physiology and behaviour have adapted to snow and cold. There is naturally a risk that they will not be able to manage if the circumstances are altered,” he says.

Villanen takes as an example the ground-feeding birds of Finland like the grouse, ptarmigan, capacaillie, partridge, quail and pheasant. These larger birds seek protection in the snow during the winter months. If there is no snow, they will be much more vulnerable.

Fast-forward evolution

Years of evolution cause Finland’s squirrels to change their fur cover in the winter from a rusty red to a thicker, grey coat.

“Nature is also greyer at this time, but the squirrel’s winter coat is also very warm. Something lighter would probably suit the animal better in these new, warmer conditions,” says Villanen.

He can’t predict how many generations of squirrel will be needed before the species is able to adapt to the milder winters, but he says it will take a long time.

“Those individual animals that don’t adapt to the new circumstances will be eliminated. They only have three choices: adjust to their changing conditions, move elsewhere or become extinct.”

“Nature is certainly not heading in a better direction if the animals can’t adapt. Humans just might be the most vulnerable organism of all. We are at the top of the food chain, and before long, climate change will hit us where it hurts,” Villanen says.

The good old days

Nature enthusiast Villanen is pleased that so many of the world’s leaders recognized the magnitude of the climate change problem in Paris and agreed collectively to do something about it.

“We all have to do everything in our power to prevent climate change.”

Panu Villanen points out that the weather and the climate are two different things. The weather reflects day-to-day, short-term conditions. The climate, on the other hand, looks at the situation in the longer term.

He remembers the snow-filled winters of the 1960s and 70s in Finland, completely different from the standard winter in the 2000s.

“It’s climate change, that’s for certain. People invest a lot of time investigating and agitating on behalf of their interests, but the birds, insects and mammals can’t represent themselves in the political arena. If only we would pay attention to them more, we would notice that massive changes are taking place all around us in the natural world.”

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