The Only Place in the World Where Sea Level Is Falling, Not Rising

In Sweden and Finland, it’s the land that’s technically rising faster than the sea.

Tourists visit the rock 'Trolltunga' in the county Hordaland in the western part of Norway, on June 21, 2017.
Tourists visit the rock Trolltunga in the western part of Norway, on June 21. In some parts of Scandinavia, sea level is actually falling.

Tore Meek/AFP/Getty Images

This story was originally published on Correctiv and has been republished here with permission. It is part of a larger project on sea levels rising, done in collaboration with Columbia Journalism School’s Energy and Environmental Reporting Project. Read the whole series here. Read another piece in this series, about Bangladeshi farmers leaving their homes because of increased salinity, on Slate.

The sea level is rising everywhere in the world, except along the coasts of Finland and Sweden. But the sea is still rising here; it’s just that the land is rising faster.

“We should be pretty safe for now,” says Martin Vermeer, a professor of geodesy at Aalto University in Helsinki, when talking about the effects of sea level rise in his home country. While global sea level is currently rising at an average of 3 millimeters per year, Finland’s landmass is rising 3 to 9 millimeters per year. In Scandinavia, the so-called post-glacial uplift has been ongoing for 10,000 years since the pressure from the huge weight of the glaciers was lifted off the land at the end of the last glacial period.

“Globally sea level rises by about 3 millimeters per year in the last decade, whereas the land uplift, the post-glacial uplift in Scandinavia, for example, reaches up to 9 millimeters per year, so it is about three times faster than the sea level is rising at the maximum,” says Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of physics of the oceans at Potsdam University and co-chairman of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “That is why many places, especially around Scandinavia, experience relative sea level drop.”

The fact that the land in Finland is rising at the same rate as the sea or even faster means that sea level is dropping everywhere along the coastline. The same goes for Finland’s neighboring country, Sweden, where land is rising at similar rates. This is causing problems along the coastlines of these countries, such as for the shipping industries in the area. “The conditions for sea transportation in the area is getting more tricky,” says Sven Knutsson, professor of soil mechanics at Lulea University of Technology.

The port of the town of Lulea in northern Sweden is one of the biggest in the country when it comes to shipping goods and the biggest in terms of tons passing through. An easy and open access to the Baltic Sea is fundamental for the large iron ore industry and other industries in the area. But now it is being threatened.

“The land rise itself is creating a more shallow port,” says Henrik Vuorinen, the managing director for the port of Lulea. Vuorinen describes how the port, which was built in the mid-’70s, is getting too shallow for the larger ships that are coming into the port nowadays. “During these last 40 years, the land has risen by approximately half a meter due to the post-glacial rebound.”

This is why the town of Lulea is working on a project to deepen its port so that bigger ships will be able to freight goods through there. “We plan to make a rather large dredging operation to deepen the fairway into Lulea,” says Vuorinen, who hopes that the new and deeper harbor will be ready by 2023. The so-called Iron Port Project, which is partly financed by the European Union, will cost about 1.7 billion Swedish crowns, or about $208 million.

Lulea is a town in northern Sweden highly affected by the post glacial uplift that has been ongoing for the past 10,000 years.

But the shallowing seawater in the Baltic Sea is not the only thing worrying people in the area, says Knutsson. Swedes are known for enjoying a swim in their freshwater lakes during the hot summer months, but inhabitants of Lulea and surrounding areas are now worried about those lakes. As the land rises, they slowly become smaller and shallower. Knutsson describes how grass is already growing in these shallow lakes, making them dirtier and less attractive than before.

“It becomes more of a muddied terrain instead of this open, free space it used to be with its clear water,” Knutsson says, adding that there is an ongoing discussion among the locals on what can be done about this. “There is a very strong debate in our city if the city should make some measures in order to keep the water surface free, which is of course very expensive and they would be fighting against nature and lose anyway.” Other things people are concerned with is the constant growth of the numerous small islands in the Baltic Sea. “Islands which were separated with water earlier are now connected,” says Knutsson.

Across the Baltic Sea, people are facing different problems. Ostrobothnia makes up a land area in Western Finland where floods have become more common due to land rise. Vermeer, the professor of geodesy at Aalto University, describes how land is rising faster by the coastline than further east, which is causing rivers to tilt. “The big rivers flow from the east to the Gulf of Bothnia, and because the land is rising more in the west than in the east, it is tilting,” he says, adding that this can cause big river floods, especially during springtime when the rivers are full of melting snow water.

Another more positive effect people in Finland are experiencing due to land rise is all the extra land that is being added to the coastline. “Finland is gaining 700 hectares every year due to this uplift,” says Vermeer, stressing that a very thin strip is added to the western coastline of Finland every year. “And after a generation or so, it is noticeable that there is more land than on old pictures.” Newly added land is by default owned by the state, but people owning land adjoining it can claim it. This has sometimes caused a stir between neighbors claiming the same land with such issues ending up in courts.

Although the inhabitants of Finland and Sweden do not have to worry about the effects of sea level rise for now, it is highly likely that will change in the near future. As the atmosphere warms, the sea level will likely continue to rise at accelerating rates, says Vermeer. “As temperatures go up, the sea level rise will increase further, and even Finland won´t be safe after that.”