Lapland communities brace for 50-year high spring floods

Record winter snow levels in Lapland mean towns across the region are making preparations to cope with 1-in-50 year floods.

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File picture showing flooded area of Lapland, May 2020 / Credit: SYKE

Communities across Lapland are bracing for spring floods which could reach their highest peak for 50 years, with up to 5-meter surges that threaten to breach river banks and flood defences in a number of towns including Rovaniemi, Kemijärvi, Kiitilä, Tornio, Pello and Ivalo.

“Spring flood is a normal natural thing, especially in Lapland but this year the problem is record snow, the most for 60 years. Now it is melting really fast” explains Bertel Vehviläinen, a hydrologist at the Finnish Environmental Institute Syke.

Flood warnings are in place along much of the Kemijoki and Ounasjoki rivers as authorities try to shore up defences for property and infrastructure. The Tornionjoki river with a large northern catchment area is likely to reach its flood peak at the same time as the Tenojoki river by the middle of June, exacerbating the flood risks along the course of the waterways.

“At the moment the melting looks like it will cause near-record flood, of course it depends how the melting is happening but now it is melting really fast. We are talking about flood risks to towns and summer cottages which are all over in the forest and marshlands” Vehviläinen says.

File picture of Kemijoki river, Rovaniemi, 19th may 2020 / Credit: SYKE

Rovaniemi authorities already preparing

In Rovaniemi, the largest urban area in Finnish Lapland, preparations are well underway ahead of the expected floods.

Work crews have been protecting city-owned properties, and have already evacuated a healthcare centre as a precaution. They’re also preparing to accommodate and feed local residents who get flooded out of their homes, with the peak of the floods expected to hit as soon as this weekend, or the start of next week.

“The current flood and the rising water is very stressing to all people living on the banks of the river” says Rovaniemi Mayor Ulla-Kirsikka Vainio.

Officials have drawn up plans of 11 areas around the town which are likely to experience some flooding, with ‘red zones’ most at risk covering dozens of residential properties, a shopping centre and other commercial buildings.

“The City of Rovaniemi like all other cities does not compensate for flood damages to private premises owners or companies. The would have arranged insurance to protect from damages” Mayor Vainio tells News Now Finland.

The city is however providing guidance to home owners on how to protect their premises, and is arranging for free sandbags to build defensive walls. The city will also have a flood phone hotline set up for local residents to call, as well as planning now for aid after the floods through agencies like the Red Cross and local churches.

Map showing Lapland flood risks, 28th May 2020 / Credit: SYKE

Smaller municipalities hope for limited flood damage

Although all the experts are predicting near-record levels of flood waters this year there is some hope that the damage won’t be so great to private properties or municipal buildings.

In Kemijärvi authorities have already warned beach residents to move shelters, boats and other movable property away from the water.

While there’s little risk of flood damage to the town centre itself, outside the downtown hub there’s a greater chance although Lake Kemijärvi water levels can be controlled as a precaution.

“In Kemijärvi itself we are only preparing to protect the buildings if something bad will happen but now it seems like Kemijärvi is in a good situation” says Jukka Kuisma, Head of Municipal Technology in Kemijärvi.

“In the north of Lapland there is still about 40cm of snow, in some places more, and now the weather is hotter. In Kemijärvi we are working with the water levels because the hydro power station can control the water in the lake” he tells News Now Finland.

The lake can have its water level reduced by 5-7 meters to cope with extra flood waters, easing some of the pressure further along the course of the waterway.

In the town of Kittilä there’s also an increased threat for private property but Mayor Antti Jämsén says residents there are protecting their homes and cautiously optimistic the floods won’t be as damaging as they were 14 years ago.

“It’s very serious because the water is going up to its peak next week. In 2005 the flood damages were €6 million. Now it won’t be so bad because the private property owners have done what they need to protect their buildings.”