home & introduction


projects & ideas



Island Vulnerability

Åland Åland's Flag

Island Vulnerability explores the challenges which isolated geographies face when dealing with risk and disasters by examining the processes which create, maintain, and could be used to reduce their vulnerability. This page provides information on vulnerability issues in Åland:

Forest and house reflected on the water.

Reflecting on Åland.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)


Åland is a province of Finland in the Baltic Sea, but its people are Swedish-speaking with more cultural and historical ties to Sweden than to Finland. Out of approximately 6,500 islands, 65 are inhabited with several connected through causeways and bridges. The rest are linked by ferries and private boats. Approximately 26,000 people live on Åland with the capital and only large settlement of Mariehamn being home to 11,000. Åland's special political status is twofold: (i) the demilitarization and neutralization mandated by international treaties leading the name "Islands of Peace" and (ii) Åland's autonomy from Finland and its special status within the European Union.

I spent 8-26 May 2007 on Åland and the information presented here is mostly from that trip. Many of the ideas were based on the project Managing Vulnerabilities of Small Island Heritage.

Åland's parliament in session.

Åland's parliament in session.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)


The table below is a vulnerability schematic for which heritage, developed for the Faroes and then modified and applied to Åland.

Examples of Heritage Vulnerabilities on Åland


Historical, Social, Cultural, or Built Heritage

Natural Heritage

Vulnerability exposed by environmental events

A storm damaging a church or museum. Fog increasing the collision potential for smaller boats (which lack radar).

An epidemic affecting fish, birds, or mammals.

Vulnerability exposed by non-environmental events

A fire in a museum or gallery. A ship sinking or an airplane or helicopter crash due to mechanical failure.

An oil spill or ferry sinking which harms marine and coastal ecosystems.

Vulnerability exposed by creeping environmental changes

Weathering of structures. Climate change reducing Baltic Sea freeze which eliminates ice-based cultural events.

Climate change altering ecosystems.

Vulnerability exposed by creeping non-environmental changes

Development, including roads, occurring on top of archaeological sites—especially burial mounds—or renovating historical architecture (including to meet modern safety and access standards). An ageing population means the loss of traditional skills, with boat making and sail making particularly prominent.

Increasing waste, especially non-biodegradables and including wastewater, causing leachate which affects lakes and coastlines.

Air Åland at Mariehamn Airport.

Air Åland at Mariehamn Airport.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)


Climate change was of particular interest. The table below considers possible impacts and consequences of climate change on Åland.

Possible Climate Change Impacts on and Consequences for Åland

Possible Climate Change Impacts

Potential Consequence for Åland

Air and ocean temperature increase.

Could make the climate milder.

Coastal erosion.

Not likely to have an impact due to the coastal geology.

Ocean acidification.

Not likely to have an impact due to the coastal geology.

Rainfall and droughts.

Not known. Floods could be affected by changes to storms.

Sea level rise.

Not likely to have an impact because Åland is rising out of the sea, due to isostatic uplift, faster than seas are expected to rise. Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would cause a sea level rise which would cause problems (see below).


Not known, but any change in storm characteristics is not likely to affect Åland much because the culture is inured to severe and frequent storms, unless storms significantly preclude transport to and from the Åland.

Food supplies.

Åland has a high degree of self-sufficiency, but tastes for imports are increasing.

Fossil fuel price increase.

Could isolate Åland which might be advantageous for self-sufficiency without being pressured by external demands. Ferry transport is already subsidised.

Macroeconomic problems globally.

Could have a significant impact. The largest industry, shipping, receives most of its revenue from outside of Åland. Many skilled businesses (e.g. engineering and IT firms) depend mainly on contracts outside of Åland. Other major industries, such as chip making and apple growing, rely on exporting Åland's products. The investment in tourism assumes continued increase in arrivals..

Population migration.

Could stretch resources and lead to disharmony if people wish to move to Åland.

The Taffel chips (crisps) building.

The homegrown industry of Taffel chips (crisps): Is there vulnerability to global macroeconomic changes?
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)


As Åland is an archipelago, coastal vulnerability is of particular interest. The highest point, Orrdalsklint, is 128 m above sea level, the countryside is hilly, and the coastline rises fairly rapidly when moving inland in most cases. While a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and a consequent rise in sea levels of 5 m would be inconvenient, would submerge most causeways, and could make the capital Mariehamn uninhabitable by inundating most of it, that scenario would not make Åland uninhabitable.

More gentle sea level rise, expected due to thermal expansion of the oceans of up to 1 m by 2100, would not be a major concern compared to the concern which atolls face. Due to isostatic uplift following the end of the last ice age, Åland has been rising out of the sea at a rate of 0.5-1.0 m per century, countering most of climate change induced sea level rise.

Few properties are situated right on the coast. Where people own the coastal strip, their properties are generally sited more than 30 m inland and at least 1-2 m above sea level, but usually much higher. This situation likely results from (a) wishing to be sheltered from storms, waves, wind, and possibly salt and (b) building on or near the site which contained the previous building, so if houses were built on the shoreline several centuries ago, they would now be farther inland due to isostatic uplift. Infrastructure which would likely require major alterations or rebuilding due to sea-level rise would be causeways, lighthouses, and boathouses. Some bridges might need to raised. As well, in many places, ferry channels are narrow, delineated by poles. These channels would need to be re-marked.

I was also told that, as isostatic uplift raises land out of the sea, the current property owner does not immediately own the new shoreline. They need to purchase the land from the municipality. With sea-level rise almost balancing isostatic uplift, shoreline owners might not need to worry about this issue in expanding their property.

The view from Åland's highest point, Orrdalsklint, 128 m above sea level.

The view from Åland's highest point, Orrdalsklint, 128 m above sea level.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)


The most prominent disasters affecting Åland throughout history have been (in alphabetical order):

  • Epidemics, mainly exacerbated by war or forced labour. Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis are endemic, spread by ticks.

  • Shipwrecks due to storms. A register of all shipwrecks is kept and many of them are now dive sites. Most of these weather events are accepted as being part of the norm, so they are inconveniences rather than disruptions. Apart from damage to ships, storms have rarely caused extensive havoc.

  • War. Åland has been a pawn throughout its history, mainly between Sweden and Russia. The islands were evacuated from 1714-1721 due to war whilst the most immense structures ever built on the islands were Russian fortifications, just prior to the Crimean War and then for World War I. Sweden and Finland had diplomatic, but not violent, conflicts over Åland after Finland's independence in 1917. During World War II, Sweden's neutrality and Finland's mainland as a buffer zone from Russia--with Finland allying with Germany against Russia--kept most direct conflict away from Åland, but the Baltic Sea was dangerous for all shipping.

Inside the Åland Maritime Museum.

The Åland Maritime Museum: Shipping and shipwrecks frequently play an important role in island life, history, and livelihoods.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Examples of other disaster-related challenges affecting Åland (in alphabetical order):

  • Climate change, as discussed above.

  • Emigration to the mainland, either Finland or Sweden, does not seem to be much of a concern on Åland, perhaps because they do not consider themselves to have a strong, unique culture (in contrast to the Faroes) when compared to Sweden. Many people seem to settle in Åland due to the lifestyle, mainly from Finland and Sweden but also the approximately 5% of the population born outside of Nordic countries, including approximately 150 Iranians.

  • Human violence is always a threat, but is less likely for Åland than for many other regional or international locations. Examples are vandalism, terrorism, civil disorder, protests, and riots. All past wars were externally imposed with the population seeking to avoid conflict and, in recent decades, to protect Åland's demilitarised and neutralised status.

  • Land transport incidents must happen, but Åland's comparatively good drivers and comparatively good roads along main routes reduce their likelihood. Colliding with elks is the main danger. Outside towns, road lightning is mostly absent, making winter driving more dangerous and winter cycling foolhardy. Some short highway sections are barred to cyclists with detours signposted, potentially suggesting incidents of cyclists being struck or a road section deemed to be too narrow to permit cycling. Another example of a sensible transport policy is that specific inter-island ferries, approximately weekly, are designated for transport of dangerous goods. Other traffic is severely limited on those ferries.

  • Pollution is comparatively limited, with the main visible consequence being litter, but agricultural run-off into the lakes and Baltic Sea is increasingly becoming a concern. External pollution is more of a concern, such as the Baltic Sea being highly polluted, predominantly from Russian effluent.

  • Weather events, mainly rain, wind storms, minor and localised flooding, fog, and snow and ice in the winter. Droughts and heat waves presumably could be concerns, but there appears to be little history or, for the moment, worry about them.

  • Vipers are the only poisonous animal on Åland.

  • Volcanic ash from a large European eruption could affect weather on Åland. It would be interesting to examine weather and mortality records following the 1783-1784 Laki eruption which affected the rest of Europe, causing thousands of deaths.

A dead snake in the road, run over by a car.

One of Åland's snakes meets its natural enemy: The Ford Mondeo.
Since there were no skid marks in front of this snake, perhaps it played trombone.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)


Ownership of land versus ownership of heritage was an interesting discussion point. A prominent example is that the owner of the land containing Åland's highest point, Orrdalsklint, had a dispute with Åland's government. At another site which he owns, he wishes to build a house, but the government has denied permission because it would be over a burial site. This situation is different from many disputes with natives in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, because in most of those instances, ownership of the land is disputed since a strong argument can be made that the land was illegally taken from the indigenous peoples. In this Åland case, ownership of the land is not disputed, but the government's right to deny building on the land for heritage reasons is in dispute.

Interestingly, the land owner could easily start building to the extent that the burial site is ruined before anyone would be able to stop him. Then what? The heritage no longer exists, so is there any reason to deny the owner a building permit--even if he has served jail time for starting to build without a permit.

The location and existence of many natural, cultural, and historical heritage sites are well documented, but in many cases, the reason for protecting the site and its details are not well documented, even in Swedish. The philosophical question is: what is the value of heritage without proper explanation?

The Russian fort at Bomarsund was destroyed during the Crimean War before many of its accompanying towers and fortifications were completed. Based on the detailed plans and remaining ruins, computer graphics have re-created the entire complex and surrounding sites--those destroyed and those never built. Standard visualization techniques are used such as fly-bys, rotations, an external view followed by a cutaway to inside, and different lighting conditions. So heritage has been created for teaching, enjoyment, and research which never existed.

Could this approach be taken further and lead to 3D and 4D computer models and visualizations of Åland as it would have looked if Russia had won the battle and/or retained the post-Crimean War right to fortify Åland and/or retained Finland after World War I. For example, computer imagery could be used to create Russian fortifications which never existed on other sites which had not yet been considered for such defences. Bomarsund is protected from development as a heritage site, even though the majority of the site is piles of stones or overgrown vegetation. Should sites for Russian fortifications which were never considered but which could have become important defensive sites be similarly protected from development? Obviously the sensible answer is "no", but when heritage which never existed (the uncompleted parts of Bomarsund) starts to be created on a computer, for excellent reasons, these questions arise. As an added note on cultural heritage at Bomarsund, the café sells Åland baked goods, but only Thai main courses and it is marketed as a Thai restaurant.

The Russian fort at Bomarsund and an interpretive sign.

The Russian fort at Bomarsund.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)


In terms of promotion, interest, and income, heritage tourism seems to be second to non-heritage tourism. The latter includes a casino in Mariehamn, a cruise experience with on-board entertainment rather than the importance of the destination, Finland-Sweden cruises only in order to purchase duty free alcohol, a rock festival. a jazz festival, and a beach volleyball tournament. The point is to bring people to Åland in order to spend money on Åland, but the reason for the money being spent is unimportant. The focus has been on quick-fix and popular solutions, often yielding day or one-night trips, rather than considering the promotion of heritage, an example of which is making museums free and marketing a fascinating heritage in order to encourage people to spend more time on Åland and to be repeat visitors.

Yet non-heritage tourism arguably supports Ålanders to pursue their interests, such as Åland artists playing big band, jazz, and rock music. Similarly, Åland children naturally learn music through European classical composers, as others around the world do, and that should not necessarily be criticised. The public library in Mariehamn has a large collection of sheet music for Åland folk music, but that is not marketed in terms of concerts or selling the sheet music in stores, so there is potential for much more support form music heritage. Irrespective, non-heritage tourism on Åland for generating income is not necessarily different from an Åland-based engineering or IT firm which completes most of its contracts outside of Åland for generating income.

Another example is that duty free shopping, mainly alcohol but including tobacco and perfume, on board the cruise ship ferries to Sweden helps to subsidise the ferry ticket prices, permitting Ålanders to travel and encouraging tourists to visit Åland. Yet when Ålanders take the ferries, are they using their income on duty free goods to subsidise themselves while passing the social and health costs of alcohol and tobacco onto their government? Does Åland's government lose the tax revenue from purchases which would otherwise be made with full taxes, or does that affect mainly Stockholm and Helsinki? Would it make more sense for Åland's government to subsidise the ferries directly or to own the ferries in order to keep ticket prices low? If mainly Swedes and Finns use the ferries for duty free, as appears to be the case, then money is being brought into Åland at the expense of Stockholm and Helsinki while failing to market all that Åland could offer.

Furthermore, concerns regarding tourism dependency are emerging. If the tourism market prefers rock concerts, beach volleyball, and duty free shopping to heritage, could heritage be sacrificed in order to support tourism livelihoods?

The duty free shop on board one of the ferries to and from Åland.

Duty free alcohol on an Åland-Stockholm ferry: Part of Åland's tourismscape.
As I was taking photos in the duty free shop, a staff member approached me and said that taking photos inside the duty free shop is not permitted. I asked "Why?" She did not know the answer.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

In 2007, there was certainly no evidence of overusing heritage. Instead, the opposite was witnessed with many museums open only in July or for up to twelve weeks during the summer. Focusing on such a short season can assist in alleviating tourism dependency, but issues of carrying capacity (per year, per month, and per week) should be investigated along with the impacts of (i) intense use for a short time period compared to (ii) less intense use spread out over a longer time period.

Good use is being made of new and comparatively creative approaches to tourism. The northeastern isles (Bränö commune) are tapping into their eastern neighbours of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia by encouraging these tourists to enjoy the islands' excellent sea fishing. Such marketing is helped by the Baltic states being EU members.

A budding "adventure tourism" industry is appearing. To be fair, not that much adventure exists on Åland but, particularly for sheltered tourists from more affluent urban areas, sea kayaking with camping on uninhabited isles, treks along marked heritage routes, and bicycle tours might be adventuresome enough. Considering this "adventure tourism" within the context of sustainable transport and encouraging longer tourism stays on Åland, an EU-funded organization exists to market the Stockholm-Helsinki route via Åland by using bicycles, kayaks, and local ferries. Climate change could make this route more viable over more months of the year.

There is a separation between the marketing of Åland's tourism and the strategies of tourism within wider contexts. That has led to differences between environment/sustainability/livelihoods approaches and the desire to increase tourism numbers and tourism revenue. For instance, the tourism marketing people would prefer a larger quay to accommodate the largest cruise ships, but Åland does not have the capacity to deal with that number of tourists. As well, tourism dependency is best avoided, instead focusing on livelihood diversity.

The display about Åland in Åland's Museum.

The display about Åland in Åland's Museum.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Environmental Education

Environmental education has been having mixed results on Åland due to a strong interest in "modern" living, which means the typical affluent countries' (misguided) approach of the right to consume and the assumption that bigger = better, especially for houses and vehicles including SUVs. It was suggested that the reason for this shift is that the Ålanders do not know any better. They simply assume that what they see elsewhere in affluent countries is good. They also react similarly to others in affluent countries by criticising sustainability-related changes as being too negative for modern lifestyles.

In terms of policies and actions regarding environment and sustainability issues, there are odd contrasts. For example, inter-island ferries are free for foot passengers, but the cost of busses to get to the ferry is excessive: €10-12 for a return journey of an hour and 30-40 km each way. That is almost comparable to the €15 return journey ferry fee for a car, especially because the busses charge €5 each way for carrying a bicycle. As well, some ferry routes are exclusively for passengers and bicycles, but the fee is €7-9 per bicycle.

There are recycling stations almost everywhere on Åland, including remote islands. One at the far end of Björkö is reached from Mariehamn by (i) a one hour bus ride to a ferry terminal, (ii) a 2.5 hour ferry trip to Lappo, (iii) a 3 km road on Lappo, (iv) a five minute cable ferry to Björkö, and (v) a 4 km road on Björkö to reach the settlement at the far end. Most people use these stations even though they must drive there and separate all their recyclables into different categories. Large, heavy trucks then travel by ferry to pick up these recyclables and to drive them back to Åland's mainland for processing and recycling.

Björkö's recycling station.

Björkö's recycling station.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

A two-trailer lorry with material for recycling drives on board the ferry at Husö.

The recycling lorry boards the ferry at Husö.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Significant efforts are being made with regards to adult education and distant education for all topics, but with mixed results. Åland has an Open University which is based in Mariehamn but with classes on Friday evenings and Saturdays. Courses can be followed without credit to see whether or not the student wishes to pursue a formal qualification. As well, efforts have been made to educate teachers, particularly outside the capital, on using the internet for education along with distance teaching techniques. Resistance has been met with older teachers through comments such as "I know how to teach" and "A computer is good for being a complicated typewriter", but the younger generation is embracing the internet and multimedia products as educational tools while accepting the strong advantages of distance teaching.

One interesting barrier against pedagogical advances through teacher training is that the Åland, or perhaps national or regional, culture of teaching discourages government control of or directives for the teacher. The teacher has the responsibility for deciding how to teach and which tools to use. An older teacher in a remote location would be unlikely to voluntarily seek further education regarding new pedagogical techniques or using the internet as a teaching tool. Unless the students demand more from the teacher, the teacher has the power to avoid any new teaching approaches.

Education techniques have been applied for making private enterprises more environmentally friendly. The main concern is that 90-95% of private enterprises on Åland are microenterprises; that is, fewer than five people. That means that time and interest are limited for the sake of focusing on immediate operations which are known to bring in immediate revenue. As well, many larger enterprises are related to shipping which must adhere to EU and/or international environmental standards anyway, so little impetus exists to look further.

A plan has been proposed for a virtual university to serve remote Nordic locations: Universitas Borealis for Greenland, the Faroes, Åland, and the Sámi. The original proposer died, but others wish to pursue the idea.

Several projects exist examining ways to use information and communications technologies for different purposes including tourism and public services, but these techniques could easily be applied to continuing, distant, adult, and environmental education too. Some overlap is already occurring.

An otter swimming near shore.

Be educated how to help me, please!
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Potential further work

Åland and possible comparators open the door for some fascinating research and practice questions regarding different combinations of autonomy, rights, security, sustainability and livelihoods--all with aspects of vulnerability embedded within them and all influencing disaster risk reduction and being influenced by disasters. Some examples of such questions:

  • What other comparators exist for demilitarisation and neutralisation? Possibilities could be post-WWII Japan and Germany.

  • How do the powers and non-powers of sub-national island jurisdictions including Åland compare with and other sub-national jurisdictions, such as provinces, states, and territories?

  • How do different forms of autonomy promote and inhibit livelihoods, identity, peace, and their connections?

  • What comparators exist within Northern Europe regarding the rights of minorities and marginalised peoples, such as the Sámi, Åland and other Swedish speakers in Finland, the Baltic states, and Kaliningrad? How does islandness or non-islandness affect all their marginalisation and opportunities?

  • How does the increasing dominance of English affect social, political, and livelihood security?

  • How could knowledge management (KM4dev) and technology (ICT4dev) be further used to support livelihoods in remote locations?

Some of the Åland history shelves of Mariehamn library.

Some of the Åland history shelves of Mariehamn library.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

More Photographs

Inside St. Göran's church in Mariehamn.

Inside St. Göran's church in Mariehamn.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

A toilet at the side of the road with flowers growing out of the bowl and the tank.

Toilet at the side of the road.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

An Arctic tern flying.

Arctic tern.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Two bird watchers at an Åland lake.

Bird watching, an important part of Åland tourism.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

A boat tied up at a small dock.

A placid day in the suburbs of Mariehamn.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Boat houses lined up along the shore.

Boat houses.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Looking at modern cruise ships from the Museum Ship Pommern.

The modern Åland ferries sail away as seen from the Museum Ship Pommern.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Wood fence using traditional techniques.

Traditional wood fencing.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

The wheelhouse of one of the archipelago ferries.

Captaining one of the archipelago ferries.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Two people in thick coats having an ice cream on a Mariehamn bench.

It's 10°C! Perfect for an ice cream!
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

A lake viewed from the woods.

(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

The shoreline, sea, and forest of Åland.

Typical Åland scenery.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Inside St. Olof's Chapel.

St. Olof's Chapel.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

A house at the end of a straight, tree-lilned drive.

Tree house?
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

A forest trail on Sottunga.

A walk into the woods on Sottunga.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2007.)

Contact Island Vulnerability.

The material on the Island Vulnerability website is provided as only an information source. Neither definitive advice nor recommendations are implied. Each person or organisation accessing the website is responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed and are strongly advised to verify all information. No liability will be accepted for loss or damage incurred as a result of using the material on this website. The appearance of external links on this website does not constitute endorsement of the organisations, information, products, or services contained on that external website.