Photo by Tanja Lindholm

In a report published in January 2017, the UN deemed biodiversity and a clean environment basic human rights. Research has shown what a significant impact they have on both our health and our economy. What happens to Finnish forests will, to a great extent, determine what happens to Finland. Right now, a fifth of our export revenue depends on our forests. Within a few years, forests could be the keys to our energy solutions both nationally and internationally. Food production is also entirely reliant on ecological processes; for instance, one fifth of the people in the world derive their protein mainly from fish.

The timing of the UN report is no accident, for we live in a time when both the natural environment and humanity are changing at an unprecedented rate. The changes are being driven by multiple factors, such as global warming, habitat fragmentation and declining biodiversity. The response from ecosystems and ecosystem processes (e.g. pollination and decomposition) to this change - and the subsequent consequenses to food safety and human health - are challenges that urgently need solutions.

Long-term nature observation series are indispensable records of how communities of organisms and the ecosystem services they provide react to environmental change. Finland is one of the world's leading countries in this area - we have a unique knowledge reserve made up of long-term series of nature observations. This knowledge has been gathered by universities, volunteers and especially research institutes. We have unique observational datasets on e.g. game, timber reserves, birds, voles and their predators, crop diseases, the organisms of Åland's dry meadow networks, moose damage and fish stocks. Finland can have a key position in studying the responses of communities and their ecosystem services to environmental change. The latest research has also shown that studies that are based on long-term datasets have a greater impact on policy, as policymakers have a lot of faith in these studies.

Finnish research has produced breakthroughs by showing e.g. how disease epidemics change with habitat fragmentation, how the growing season of a community changes with global warming, and how Arctic ecosystems alter with environmental change. Yet we have not taken advantage of the full potential of long-term datasets. Although the study of individual species and local species communities has revealed nature's sensitivity to environmental change, it would be hard to predict long term changes or to reveal the mechanisms behind these changes based on these results. This is because the success of a species in nature depends on interactions with other species. So far no project has systematically utilised the enormous reserve of knowledge that can be achieved by consolidating time series from different species communities and habitats.

The main goal of our endeavour is to gain an understanding of the mechanisms of change - for without understanding cause and effect we cannot reliably predict future change. By analysing several time series at once, we can identify patterns in the kinds of species groups and ecosystem processes that are most sensitive to environmental change, as well as the strength and speed of their responses. Drawing such a big picture is such a unique endeavour even on an international scale, that it will enable scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of the effects of global environmental change. This knowledge is also of primary importance in planning our own response to the effects of global environmental change.