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Heli Huhtamaa.

Climate historian builds an international career in Bern

Heli Huhtamaa defended her doctoral dissertation at the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Bern in 2017. Now, she is working at the prestigious Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, studying the effects of past volcanic eruptions.

In December 2021, Heli Huhtamaa received some good news: she had been granted the highly competitive ERC Starting Grant, which is aimed at promising junior researchers for pioneering projects.

Right after receiving the positive funding decision, it was confirmed that Switzerland would be excluded from the Horizon programme and that researchers working in Swiss universities and research institutes would no longer eligible for funding.

“Researchers were offered the opportunity to switch their host university to one operating in an EU country. However, the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation promised to contribute a corresponding amount of national funding, so it was possible for me to stay in Bern.”

In the ERC project, Huhtamaa’s research group focuses on how past volcanic eruptions have impacted climate and European societies, focusing particularly on Europe north of the Alps.

“The worst famines in northern Europe in the 1600s coincided with a few tropical volcanic eruptions elsewhere in the world. It is also known that there is great regional and temporal variation in how different volcanic eruptions have impacted climate. For example, the year 1816 was ‘a year without a summer’ in Switzerland, while the weather conditions in Finland at the time were rather normal. It is interesting to see how the effects of volcanic eruptions varied regionally in Europe.”

Climate history sheds light on past means of survival

Climate change is a topic on nearly everyone’s agenda and, according to Huhtamaa, historians have a lot to contribute to this debate.

“For example, by showing how the Great Famine of the 1690s was linked to climate, the public may react differently than to mere statistics. Historical research methods can also provide information on people’s past methods of survival. This also gives us insight into the mechanisms that strengthen resilience within societies.”

Huhtamaa says that history cannot be used to predict the future.

“The climate system itself is very complex. And when we talk about societies, they are even more complex and random. What history research can do is to shed light on this complexity.”

Focus on climate included in research already as a student

Huhtamaa became interested in climate history, partly through coincidence, when she was still a student in Joensuu. While completing her Master's degree, she did an internship at the Dendrochronology Laboratory of the University of Eastern Finland.

“I knew that tree-ring dating was used to study old shipwrecks. As a child, I wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau, and this perhaps was part of the reason why I wanted to intern at the Dendrochronology Laboratory.”

When analysing different samples, Huhtamaa noticed that the tree-rings coinciding with 1601 and 1695, i.e., the worst years of famine in Finnish history, were narrow.

“At this point, my marine archaeology dreams were replaced by a focus on climate.”

A small number of historians make use of tree-ring data

Tree-ring material continues to be part of Huhtamaa’s research. In Finland, she is currently collaborating with researcher Samuli Helama at Natural Resources Institute Finland, and with laboratory director Markku Oinonen at the Finnish Museum of Natural History.

“Only a small number of historians make use of tree-ring data. It is great that the scientific community has been joined by new students and researchers who utilise materials of natural history alongside written sources to study the climate effects of the past. However, we are still talking about a fairly small, global network.”

In Switzerland, Huhtamaa has been able to expand the natural history materials she uses in her research to, for example, ice core data. Her journey to Switzerland began with her doctoral dissertation. She worked as a visiting researcher at the University of Bern and in 2017 ended up defending a dual doctoral dissertation in climate sciences at the University of Bern, and in history at the University of Eastern Finland.

Solid foundation for a research career from the University of Eastern Finland

Huhtamaa’s doctoral research was a continuation of her Master’s thesis, which also focused on the theme of climate. The multidisciplinary group of researchers working in her own department provided new perspectives to doing research.

“The University of Eastern Finland gave me a basic foundation for conducting interdisciplinary research. At the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies, I had the opportunity to discuss things not only with researchers from my own field, but also with researchers of geography and environmental policy. Thanks to colleagues from outside my own field and focus, coffee table discussions were fruitful.”

This is something Huhtamaa would like to see emphasised when talking about the career paths of students.

Huhtamaa’s current research community at the University of Bern is multidisciplinary and international. The research groups at the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research include researchers in fields such as history, archaeology, physics, mathematics, chemistry, geology, medicine and sediment research.

Huhtamaa encourages young historians to adopt an interdisciplinary approach

Thanks to the ERC Starting Grant, Huhtamaa is now able to build a research group of her own. The long funding period also enables her to settle in Bern on a more permanent basis.

“During the last ten years, I haven't lived in one country for more than a couple of years, so I’ve always had to fit my life in a couple of suitcases. Now, I can even buy some house plants!”

Although there are some challenges with building an international career, doing research and having an interdisciplinary approach have been worth it.  And interdisciplinarity is precisely what Huhtamaa encourages among young historians.

“It is worth publishing your papers also in journals outside your own field. Besides history journals, I’ve published my research in journals of climatology, archaeology, and geography. It challenges you to think about how to make your research interesting to the readers of that particular journal. This is also a way to establish new networks.”

Huhtamaa is currently based in Bern, but she is open to returning to Finland as well.

“The working culture in Finnish universities is different from, e.g., that of the German language region. For example, Finnish universities are perhaps paying more attention to the well-being of their researchers.  Indeed, it is very important to invest in the coping of junior researchers and students; after all, they are the makers of tomorrow's science.”

In addition, both natural archives and written sources in Finland contain a huge number of leads on the long-term development of climate-human relations.

“Previous research has utilised only a fraction of the materials available in these archives. Master’s level education in Finland is, after all, very good, so there is a good foundation for establishing an interdisciplinary research group on climate and environmental history also in Finland.”

Heli Huhtamaa´s webpages

ERC project's webpages