Åland Calling

On August 5, 2010 · 2 Comments

I suppose I can break my own rules. If I admit to being hypocritical, does that make me a marginally less contemptible hypocrite or at least a more self-aware one? Perhaps not, but that’s what’s going to happen on the Twelve Mile Circle today. I’ve said repeatedly that I plan to combine reports of initial national visitors into combined entries. I don’t want to bombard you with lots of "look who just arrived" boasting. I’ve done well with that lately with bundled articles such as New Visitor Roundup and More First-Timers.

Strange things happen. I might register a first-time visitor from an exceptionally rare and unexpected location for instance. I can’t contain my joy and excitement, and I have to report it to the world even though most of you will probably respond with indifference. I’m doing the happy dance while you hit the Page Down key to read the next blog on your feed. That’s fine. I don’t take it personally. Come back in a couple of days and I’ll return to normal, or as close to "normal" as may be possible for me. After all, this little geo-oddity fixation of mine is at least a standard deviation or two away from the mainstream.

Åland Calling. That’ the title of this article, right? Yes, I received an actual genuine website visitor from the Åland Islands. This is mindbogglingly rare. The Åland Islands take the form of a small archipelago within the Baltic Sea, a rocky sentinel at the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia in the waters between mainland Finland and Sweden.



View Larger Map

There are over 6,500 islands in the archipelago and they are frequently referred to generically as "skerries." The greatest percentage of these tiny stone outcrops barely peak above the surface of the water as they scatter across the sea, serving more as hazards to navigation than habitable spaces.

The people of Åland are Swedish culturally and linguistically but they live in an autonomous region of Finland. This autonomy has been reaffirmed many times over scores of years by international organizations including the League of Nations in 1921 and the European Union as part of Finland’s 1995 admission. Åland retains absolute political neutrality and remains totally demilitarized by law.

Their autonomy even extends to the Internet. Åland achieved its own country code top-level domain in 2006 (.ax). Previously it had been relegated to subdomain status (aland.fi). That .ax domain fascinates me. I bet they could make some money selling .ax outside of it geographic confines, although perhaps not as successfully as the government of Tuvalu (.tv). Heavy metal guitarists and medieval role-players might go for .ax. Maybe?

Combine a population of less than thirty thousand people that speaks a language other than English natively with an Internet domain that’s only been around for four years, and you see why I’m totally starstruck by a website visitor from Åland. I hope my virtual visitor enjoys his or her ferry ride in Canada (the page that recorded the hit).

These aren’t even the most unusual features of Åland. That’s reserved for Åland’s sole international border on the skerry of Märket, an island split between Sweden and Finland. It’s one of the strangest international boundaries that I’ve encountered.


Märket Island Åland
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, released to the Public Domain

First, it’s ridiculously small and hardly worth sharing between nations. The entire skerry extends barely 350 X 150 metres (1,150 X 490 feet). Blame this absurd situation on the 1809 Treaty of Fredrikshamn between Sweden and Imperial Russia. They must have drawn a line down a map without giving it much thought or maybe it was part of some bizarre trade-off. I don’t know. It makes for a strange situation today.

The split isn’t new but the the oddly shaped border is a recent phenomenon dating to 1985. It took awhile for both parties to realize that the Finnish lighthouse on Märket had been built on the Swedish side of the border (reminds me of Fort Blunder between Canada and the USA). It’s been unmanned and automated since 1979 so the error had no human impact. A simple solution would have been for Finland to simply gift the decaying lighthouse to Sweden but that’s not what happened. Neither side gave up anything.

Instead they decided to change the border but within two constraints:

  • The actual coastline couldn’t change because fishing rights extended from it.
  • The split could not create a net loss of territory for either country

The result: a crazy zig-zag through the middle of the skerry of Märket that enters and exits the island as previously defined; that doglegs around the lighthouse to place it within Finland; and then cuts towards the other direction to carve out a chunk that assures both countries retain exactly the same acreage as before.

It seems like a wacky agreement, and maybe it is, but it’s wonderful to see a result that didn’t involve threats, conflict or ugliness, as would have been common at many other borderlands on this planet. Chalk one up for a peaceful solution.

Now wasn’t that a worthy exception to my rule?

geography

On August 5, 2010 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Åland Calling”

  1. Randy Clark says:

    A really Swede story. Does it end there or will there be an exciting Finnish?

Comments are closed.

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