The Natural Beauty of the Archipelago Sea

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Paul Richardson

by Paul Richardson (VIMS technician)

ZEN-like surroundings in the Archipelago Sea
The Archipelago Sea is like no other place that I’ve ever been. It’s completely different from the Spartina mud flats and warm eutrophic waters that I’m used to in Virginia. The glacier scoured bedrock islands go on forever.  They are mostly granite with a variety of low vegetation and trees.  The trees are usually small, some approaching bonsai status.  I’ve seen fully mature miniature pine trees growing in a very limited amount of soil that collected between a few rocks.  Also stunting them are the arctic winds and sea spray that blast them incessantly.

Serene pools on Lyddaren Island, Finland make work here a very ZEN-like experience

On the outer islands trees are absent altogether. But, these short sometimes bonsai trees and the lichen encrusted bedrocks remind me of what we have in the Appalachian Mountains but instead of being at 900 meters elevation, it’s all essentially at sea level.  Unlike the small muddy islands of the coastal plain in the lower Chesapeake Bay, these rocky islands were created by glaciers and they’re are all rising due to the rebound of the land after the glaciers retreated.  The average rebound is about 8mm per year!  At this rate, sea level rise will not submerge these islands.  In fact the curator of a local museum told me that he knows people who are frustrated with places where once viable waterways are now fields.  We have the opposite problem in the Chesapeake region, where the islands are sinking and ultimately disappearing.  The islands of the Baltic also hold many surprises in the form of Japanese ZEN water features.  You can never create a more beautiful water feature than can nature.

More Baltic to Chesapeake Comparisons

Zoarces viviparis, also called the viviparous eelpout/blenny.

Clupea harengus membras, or the Baltic herring. In Svenska it’s called the Stromming.

Perca fluviatilis, or the Baltic Perch. Svenska it’s called the Abborre.

To better visualize the extent of the Baltic I like to compare it to the estuary that I know so very well, The Chesapeake Bay. The Baltic is a much larger estuary.  It is over 5 times as long at 1600 km whereas the Chesapeake is 300 km.  The Baltic has an average depth of 55m whereas the Chesapeake has an average depth of 14m.  The area of the Baltic, at 377000 km2 is over 30 times that of the area of the Chesapeake at 11601 km2.   But most striking to me is the difference in the salinities between these two bodies of water.  Having a relatively broad mouth and a shallow basin the Chesapeake has a much higher salinity of about 20 psu in the lower portions, whereas the Baltic with its narrow strait has a much lower salinity of 6 – 8 psu. However, in the deeper holes in the Baltic, there are super stratified salty “basins” that are anoxic and harbor huge sulfur communities.

So even though both systems have Zostera marina and the epifaunal grazers are similar, there are vast differences in much of the fauna between the two estuaries.  The Chesapeake with its extreme temperature variation, wide open mouth, and saltier water has many more transient marine fishes that change with the seasons.  The Baltic is more of a closed system with salmon, pikes, cyprinids, and perches (see the pictures to the left of some of the fish I caught at the ZEN site here in Finland).  Similarly, however, in the eelgrass beds, both estuaries have gobies, pipe fish, sticklebacks and blennies.

Pack Ice
In contrast with the Chesapeake, here in the Baltic researchers have to contend with pack ice, which forms in November and lasts until early spring.  Christoffer told me that every five or so years the ice freezes so thick that ice experts assess and plow it and make designated official roads to accommodate the transport of supplies such as building materials to islands in a way that is much more efficient than by boat (think Ice Truckers).  I’ve seen ice on the Chesapeake, but it has never been thick enough to drive a truck on, much less walk on! Chris also said that if it’s calm and it doesn’t snow, then some of the most amazing ice skating conditions will occur. Too bad I head home before the cold weather sets in.

Traditional Wooden boats

A traditional sailing boat, which Paul spotted racing in front of the lab.

Wooden boats are still used today for travel in the Archipelago Sea, Finland.

During the summer time, however, boats are still the most common means of transport among the islands. I’ve noticed that in addition to the more commercial ferries, there are a lot of traditional wooden boats in the Archipelago Sea.  It’s an art that has returned in recent years.  Many people are restoring the old wooden boats, including Christoffer! He has several including a 7 meter Swedish racing boat that he restored and maintains.  He purchased it when he was a graduate student so that he and his wife Minna (who’s also a research scientist) could get away when they had a break from their studies.  Purchasing an island on a graduate student income was out of the question so they got this lovely wooden boat.

The Changing Baltic Sea
Temperatures are dropping, we’re having more storms, days are getting shorter, and fall is almost here.  Summer, it seems, was over in a day.  There will be more posts on the sporty conditions that we’re beginning to experience and will be experiencing more often with the changes in the seasons.  To be continued as ZEN 2012 in Finland marches on!



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