Norway’s Gift to Finland: A Mountain and a Snowfield

Halti in late winter credit: Flickr/Carsten Frenzel)
Halti in late winter (credit: Flickr/Carsten Frenzel)

Norway may present its neighbor Finland with an unusual gift: a mountain 1331 meters in elevation, with a permanent snowfield at its top. This peak, Halti, lies a few hundred meters on the Norwegian side of the boundary between the countries.  Though it is small by Norwegian standards—it does not appear on the ranking of the country’s 200 tallest mountains—it would become the highest peak in Finland. The current summit to hold that record, Haltitunturi, is just 7 meters lower; it is a high point on a ridge that descends from Halti itself. (A kilometer to the north, further within Norwegian territory, there is a higher peak,  Raisduotthaldi, which rises to 1361 meters in elevation; it has not been offered as a gift.)

Map, with Norway to north and Finland to south. Potential transfer area indicated as jubileimsgaven. source: Facebook/Haltijubileum)
Map, with Norway to north and Finland to south. Potential transfer area indicated as jubileumsgaven, or anniversary gift.  (credit: Facebook-Haltijubileum)

To accomplish this transfer, Norway would cede only a tiny portion of its territory, a triangle 1.5 hectares in area. The idea was first proposed in the 1970s by Bjørn Geirr Harsson, the former chief engineer of the Statens Kartverk, the Norwegian Mapping Authority, after he had observed the close proximity of the summit to the border while on a helicopter survey of the region.  When he learned earlier this year that Finland would be celebrating the centennial of its independence from Russia in 2017, he decided that this anniversary would be a good occasion to bring his idea into fruition.   The Facebook page that discusses this gift has over 10,000 likes, with numerous comments from Norwegians and Finns, nearly all of them positive, and a few positive comments from others as well.

Liisa Malkki, a Finnish anthropologist at Stanford University, shared this enthusiasm in a recent email to Facebook, in which she described the idea as “a beautiful breath of imagination from Norway!”  In another email interview, Rasmus  Gjedssø Bertelsen, a Danish political scientist at the University of the Arctic in Tromsø, Norway, expressed a similar sentiment, calling it “a great gesture from Norwegians.”

Hiker on snowfield at Halti (credit: Kent-Hugo Norheim)
Hiker on snowfield at Halti (credit: Kent-Hugo Norheim)

The story has attracted attention in the press and social media in Norway and Finland, in the other Nordic countries of Sweden and Denmark,  and in more distant countries, include the UK,   Russia and Turkey. These stories note that the full diplomatic negotiations to accomplish this transfer have yet to begin, though the Norwegian Mapping Authority and its Finnish counterpart have both expressed their support.  A recent post on Gizmodo describes the idea as “truly embracing the Christmas spirit—the part where you give of yourself.” The theme of holiday generosity is also expressed by CNN, whose story calls the proposed transfer “the pinnacle of gift-giving.”

By contrast, the centennial itself has attracted less attention. Only a few bloggers have emphasized the long, tangled history between Finland and Russia, pointing out that the Soviet Union invaded Finland during World War II. The Soviets occupied  border territories and retained them after the end of the war. The Finnish residents of these areas were evacuated to Finland.  More recently, tensions between Norway and Russia have increased. The cooperation between the countries declined after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, and deteriorated further when  Russian military planes entered Norwegian airspace earlier this year.

Finnish geoscientists taking a core sample to reconstruct glacial history sourcecredit A. OJala
Finnish geoscientists taking a core sample to reconstruct glacial history (credit: A. Ojala)

GlacierHub has found that some Finns find the mountain important, not only for its height, but also for its links to glaciers and ice and to cryosphere science.  Antti E.K. Ojala and his colleagues conducted paleomagnetic dating of sediments in nearby lakes to trace the activity of the Halti Glacier, a large mass of ice on the higher portions of the mountain, which they term “probably the best representative of major neoglacial activity in Finland.” Writing in The Holocene, they report that Halti Glacier formed after the melting of the large Fennoscandian Ice Sheet at the end of the most recent ice age, some 9000 to 10000 years ago, and remained active as recently as 5500 years ago. In an article  in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of Finland, Heikki Hirvas and his coauthors discuss the remnant ice in the area at present. They describe on Finland’s largest permanent snowfield, located on the mountain’s slope.  Over 3 km2 in area and over 6 meters thick, it contains numerous masses of ice within it, and may be associated with permafrost zones as well. The snowfield appears to have been stable for a long period, and was larger 100 to 150 years ago. It is not thick enough to form ice which would flow downslope and thus become a glacier.

Reindeer at Halti credit: Carten Frenzel)
Reindeer at Halti (credit: Flickr:Carten Frenzel)

An entirely different reaction—one of concern—is raised by the Sámi people, who are indigenous to the region. Their traditional lands straddle northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, and include northwestern Russia. The Norwegian anthropologist Marianne  Elisabeth Lien wrote to GlacierHub  “The mountains of which Halti is part is called Ráisduottarháldi in Sámi and are part of a larger region generally known as Sápmi–an indigenous land long known before the national borders were established. The subsequent settlement of national borders between Norway and Finland has been a major hindrance for reindeer-herding Sámi whose migratory movement with their animals was hindered by forced nationalization and sedentarization in the 18th and 19th centuries.” The Swedish anthropologist Elisa Maria Lopez, an expert on northern Scandinavia at Uppsala University, noted in an email  “Háldi is the name of animistic spirits within the Sámi religion that reside in various prominent natural features of the sub-arctic landscape, including mountains, which were considered sacred and sites of worship.” 

Lien put GlacierHub in touch with Liv Østmo, a Sámi educator in the region, who travels to Halti for fishing in the summer and has interacted extensively with local herders.  Østmo wrote to us, “This is an area which is quite important for the reindeer husbandry. Here is both calving and summer/autumn pastureland for their reindeer and therefore no wasteland.  The reindeer herders experience that there is a great pressure on the area, by different projects such as hydroelectric power and powerline developments.”  The alteration of the border would add to the pressure.  Lien added, “If this were to become the highest mountain in Finland, it is quite likely that a wide trail would develop, since this would be a national attraction. Østmo  tells me that such trails are very common around Finnish mountaintops. They would in turn lead the way for tourists, and might disturb the animals.” Indeed, the area is popular with hikers, and it would be challenging to find a form of access that would satisfy both them and the Sámi herders.

Halti reservable wilderness hut, a former Finnish Border Guard station credit: National Parks of Finalnd)
A reservable wilderness hut at Halti, which was formerly a Finnish Border Guard station (credit: National Parks of Finland)

This case shows that a small shift of an international mountain border is far from simple, even in the Nordic countries, one of the world’s most peaceful and orderly regions. It demonstrates that mountains and icy places deeply engage many people–indigenous herders, glaciologists, hikers, cartographers. anthropologists, journalists–in different ways. They evoke memories, and they stir the imagination of people whose see them on physical and virtual visits.

For more discussion of mountain and glacier issues at international borders, see our posts on France/Italy in the Alps and India/Pakistan in the Himalayas.