Physical geographer investigates tundra ecosystems under climate change

As the climate warms, the shifting of species into new areas is an important subject of research. Physical geographer Julia Kemppinen is studying the diversity of living and non-living nature with funding from the Academy of Finland. Kemppinen loves working in the field and works to understand tundra plants.
a scientist lying on a vegetation mat shows her thesis book
Photo: Milla Vahtila

Physical geographer or ecologist?

Physical geographer or ecologist? Post-doctoral researcher Julia Kemppinen pondered for a long time which title best describes her. The focus of her research is on the effects of soil moisture and nutrients on the distribution of arctic and alpine plants in particular. Climate change and microclimates are regular features of her research. Occasionally, her research focuses more on plants and their functional traits, such as the variation of leaf size within a species.

“After my dissertation, I’ve realised that I am a physical geographer. I can still study plants, too. For example, when I’m modelling the distribution of crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), I am more in the role of a physical geographer. Ecologists have a different kind of knowledge of plants,” she explains.

Kemppinen’s path into a scientific career has been straightforward. During her second year at the University of Helsinki, the young physical geographer had the chance to conduct field research at Mount Saana in Kilpisjärvi. Working in the field very much suited her, and she still uses the same methods to this day – in the same research areas. What is it about microclimates and small tundra plants that interests the physical geographer so much?

“They are things that I see in the tundra. Every summer for the past 10 years, I have been going to Lapland for research, and those things have become important. I feel like I can do something for them,” she says.

What Kemppinen does is basic research. She describes her work as a piece in a big puzzle.

“I can’t produce solutions to climate change, but new information helps us make better choices in the future. Basic research is needed to understand how nature works now and to make predictions about what happens when the climate keeps warming, she points out.

Julia Kemppinen measures soil moisture in Kilpisjärvi. "During that summer 2016, we collected 18,000 moisture measurements using that method. Fortunately, we now have miniature weather stations that measure the microclimate." Photo: Pekka Niittynen
A miniature weather station at work measuring the microclimate. The device measures moisture and temperature from the soil, the surface and the air. Photo: Julia Kemppinen

Arctic Interactions funding kick starts research career

Species distribution modelling focuses on the impact of temperature on the distribution of species. The importance of soil moisture, by comparison, has received less attention. Inspired by her research group in Helsinki, Kemppinen wrote her bachelor’s and master’s thesis on the subject, followed by a doctoral dissertation. After this, she applied for a post-doctoral research position at the University of Oulu. Funded by the university’s Arctic Interactions (ArcI) initiative, the position has given the young scientist the freedom to realise her ambitions.

“Freedom like this is exceptional. Usually, a post-doc is given a project with strictly defined goals and analysing methods. In this position, I have the freedom to work with the things that I consider to be most crucial ones,” she says.

At the University of Oulu, Kemppinen is a member of Professor Jan Hjort’s Physical Geography Research Group, one of the leading geodiversity research groups in the world. This field of research is relatively new and unfamiliar to many.

“Geodiversity refers to the diversity of non-living nature, such as geological and hydrological diversity. Geodiversity is like a stage for living things, which in turn form biodiversity,” Kemppinen explains.

A vegetation plot and GPS equipment are among the tools that Kemppinen uses in her work. The yellow flowers belong to the snow buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis), which blooms at the beginning of the summer season in Kilpisjärvi. Photo: Julia Kemppinen

New networks with Norway

The world-class research in geodiversity attracted Kemppinen to Oulu. She still hasn’t had time to get to know the city, however, as she is spending a year at UiT the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø on an ArcI visiting grant. Her research site in Kilpisjärvi is relatively close to Tromsø, and she has enjoyed good cooperation with her Norwegian colleagues.

“The biggest takeaway so far has been the networks and the opportunity for future projects with those networks too. ArcI makes is possible to broaden my international networks”, Kemppinen says.

The first part of this project is a study on the effects of microclimate on the functional traits of plants. The leaf nutrients of plants, such as blueberry and lingonberry, are one particular focus of her research. Kemppinen noticed soon that moving to Tromsø was a good decision.

“My colleagues in Tromsø have developed equipment that scans the nutrient concentration from the leaf. When I heard about it, I realised I really am in the right place!” she smiles.

The ArcI initiative has also supported her research into soil nutrients.

“The soil and nutrients change very locally, around a plant for example. This has not really been taken into account in species distribution models. Investigating this demands a lot of work and resources. Fortunately, I got ArcI funding for this work, and I can use a cost-efficient method in which a probe that simulates plant roots measures nutrients from the soil,” Kemppinen explains.

Geodiversity interests the Academy of Finland

Kemppinen’s future research work is being made possible with funding from the Academy of Finland. The focus of the project is on studying the impact of geodiversity on the microclimate and soil nutrients and how these affect vegetation.

“The project is like a bubble. Inside it, I do separate studies that link to a bigger entity. The nutrients, for instance, are a part of that entity,” she says.

Kemppinen feels that many things positively influenced the approval of her funding application by the Academy of Finland. Her visit to Tromsø has provided important international experience, while her work within the Physical Geography Research Group in Oulu gave added value to her application. While working on her dissertation, she also completed a study module in scientific communication, which may have played a part.

“It’s hard to say how much it counts regarding how the application is written, but the purpose and meaning of the study have to be expressed clearly,” she summarises.

Making an impact

With funding from the ArcI initiative and the Academy of Finland, Kemppinen is now doing her dream job. The members of the Physical Geography Research Group are enthusiastic, and everyone has their own field of expertise. Kemppinen describes the team as a creative environment in which new things are created. The researcher also has international partners that enable geographically broad and standardised research.

“We want to find out if the relationship between geodiversity and plants is the same everywhere. With collaboration, my research can include areas in South Africa, where there’s alpine tundra. When multiple plant communities and areas are compared, we get a hold of the general patterns in nature”, she explains.

Sustainable development is always on the physical geographer’s mind.

“I hope that our findings can help mitigate climate change and promote the understanding of geodiversity and biodiversity and that our results would affect decision making in nature conservation, for example. Both basic and applied research produce information on how climate change is affecting different environments,” Kemppinen says.

“I don’t take it for granted that I get to do science for a living. I appreciate every day that I get to work as a scientist,” she admits with a smile.

Text: Aino Soutsalmi

Photographing plants is one of Kemppinen’s favourite hobbies, and two of her pictures have featured on the covers of Nature journals. The enthusiastic outdoor person’s favourite plant is the leafy stemmed saxifrage (Micranthes foliolosa). Photo: J. Kemp.

Julia Kemppinen, Post-doctoral researcher, physical geography

Current residence: Tromsø, Norway

Family: Two scientists and houseplants

Best thing about my job: Working in nature, for nature

Recommends physical geography to: Everybody who wants to understand nature

Hobbies: Photographing plants, long walks, picking berries and mushrooms