Found myself in Svalbard

Nördenskiöldbreen seen from Billefjorden on a long ride to Pyramiden


Background & interests

Field notes at Grønfjorden near Barentsburg

As an arctic plant enthusiast by heart and a physical geographer by training, my focus is on soil moisture and vegetation relationships. Soil moisture is one of the key environmental variables for all terrestrial vegetation, which makes it a hot topic due to the on-going changes in temperatures and precipitation, particularly in the arctic and alpine areas. It is also a very interesting topic from spatial analysis and modelling point of view as well, as there has been a lot of exciting development for monitoring and applying soil moisture data. I am looking forward to combining our lab’s field data with e.g. radar satellite data, which provide continuous temporal measurements on a fairly high-resolution with global coverage (just imagine using that data for modelling global vegetation patterns!). This topic has intrigued me since my bachelor’s and master’s theses, which were greatly influenced by an article on the underestimated role of soil moisture in modelling climate change impacts (le Roux, Aalto & Luoto 2013, Global Change Biology). Ever since, the investigations on moisture-vegetation relations have taken me and our soil moisture devices to many exciting study sites; from the sub-Arctic Fennoscandian tundra to the sub-alpine Drakensberg grasslands of South Africa. 

I started my PhD studies at the BioGeoClimate Modelling Lab at the University of Helsinki in 2017. In my first article, we focused on the physical basis of soil moisture; how it varies spatially and temporally in tundra landscapes according to topography and soil properties (Kemppinen, Niittynen, Riihimäki & Luoto 2017, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms). We used large field datasets together with LiDAR data with 1 m2 resolution. During the process of this exciting first publication, we tested different kinds of LiDAR based topographical wetness indices (TWI), which sparked a new whole new study regarding scales and algorithms used in TWI (Riihimäki, Kemppinen & Luoto, In preparation). In my second first-author article, we broadened our focus into water as a resource, stress and disturbance driving tundra vegetation patterns (Kemppinen, Niittynen, Aalto, le Roux & Luoto, Under review). In this fine-scale study, we are looking into spatio-temporal variation of soil moisture during the growing season as well as earth surface disturbance caused by fluvial processes and the influence of these three water aspects on vegetation patterns; species distribution, species richness and community composition of three taxa (vascular plants, mosses and lichens). In arctic and alpine areas, fluvial disturbance on vegetation is caused by meltwater streams derived from melting snow, which is an important moisture source for vegetation in these systems, especially later during the growing season.

Next step on my PhD is to turn moisture-vegetation relationships around and see if and how vegetation controls soil moisture patterns in tundra landscapes. I am also in the search of a question, with which to explore moisture-vegetation relationships between different open-vegetation habitats; high-Arctic, sub-Arctic, sub-Antarctic tundra and sub-alpine grasslands. The rumor has it that plant functional traits and their global applicability (versus species-based variables) maybe just what I am looking for…


Goals & expectations

Fieldwork is what got me into science in the first place. Ever since my first summer in the fells, I have done plenty of fieldwork – not only for the fun in it, but because that is the type of learner I am. As my aim is to get a proper hang of plant functional traits, so I better study them seriously hands-on in full-throttle in a highly motivating form: field course organised by trait specialists (in one if the most precious places on this planet). And as a geographer, plant functional traits are definitely in the deep end of ecology. There is plenty of literature to work with, but again, nothing compares to doing the entire process – from field to lab to R to Word – with your own bare hands. I know I have met my aims when I can add ‘submitted’ to the process.

I like working in an environment where every conversation may lead to something new and exciting, and this course is tailor-made for this purpose. I already mentioned the importance of fieldwork, but for me it is one of the biggest personal motivations to do science for a living. Fieldwork also sparks new ideas and new connections between old ones. I am also looking forward to meeting new people around the world; international collaborations and networks do not build themselves. In addition, the intensive schedule leaves no time for multi-tasking, which is the worst enemy of learning. And finally: I am excited to learn from the bests, as it has never let me down.

Moisture-vegetation collaborations took me to the other end of the globe, to the Drakensberg in South Africa


Climate change & controversy

I used to study at the University center of Svalbard, and back then, for the first time I met people who challenged my views on climate change as I had always considered it to be inevitable and anthropogenic – or at least ever since my first climate change project back in 9th grade. Not to mention, I see climate change as one of the greatest issues concerning our planet at the moment and in the near future. I guess you could call that controversy. Yet, science would not serve its purpose, without it being questioned and openly discussed from all aspects. To quote a wise scientist I once met: “Science is a marathon, rarely a sprint, and the oxygen that drives science forward is criticism” (Smol 2016, Ideas in Ecology and Evolution).

Often believes and facts have little to do with actions in everyday-life. The high taxes in Finland have enabled an excellent and free (from kindergarten to doctorate) education system, which has included climate change awareness in its curriculum probably long before my 9th grade project. Yet, in my opinion, education alone is not enough in mitigating climate change – maybe we need a climate change tax on all products and services? Fighting climate change impacts is a tricky topic, as most people still seem to be confused by the difference between weather vs. climate, and the rest seem to be OK with some extra degrees in our cold country… In Helsinki, people are concerned and aware of the consequences of their lifestyle regarding overall environmental change. People recycle, reuse and all that jazz, but simply our whole way of living is ecologically unsustainable – we like our cars, overseas vacations, meat and dairy on every meal, not to mention our PhD students flying to Svalbard in the name of science – talking about controversy! So, it is a long and rocky road from awareness to action, but I have not lost all hope or else I would not be doing what I am doing for a living.

First soil moisture measurements for my PhD in northern Fennoscandian tundra


Social media:

Twitter: @juliakemppinen

Instagram: julia.kemppinen

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