THE Lapland town of Rovaniemi is famed for its Father Christmas industry which flies thousands of tourists every year over the Arctic circle, and into the recently constructed timber village where Santa Claus lives. But a more arresting sight than Santa greets visitors who leave the capering pixies and reindeer and drive into the town of Rovaniemi itself.
There you will find Sammumaton, a great glass and metal igloo set in to the banks of the Ounasjoki river. It is home to the University of Lapland's centre for Arctic study, and to Arktikum, its public exhibition area. The building was designed by a Danish architect and its name means "the unextinguishable" - an apt term for a construction that positively glows at night through its long gallery of windows.
The 1987 Arktikum project commemorates 70 years of Finnish independence, and was opened in 1992 at a cost of 100 million Finnish marks (Pounds 11.5 million).
Inside, visitors receive a unique perspective on global issues as they affect every country within the Arctic circle.
Enter the building's exhibition level and you encounter a startling image. Down below is a huge canopy, shaped and patterned to represent the top of the northern hemisphere. Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Iceland are no longer at disparate corners of a map but part of one homogeneous region. Everything else within the visitor centre reinforces this impression - the displays showing the spread of languages, the tent-making and food gathering, are tackled from a pan-Arctic point of view.
The same principles inform the arctic study centre in the university. Managing director Johanna Tolonen says that the centre's main research projects concern "the use and conservation of circumpolar natural resources, and the consequences of urbanisation on the Arctic environment".
The centre houses an international team of 20 research scientists gathered from various countries, including those such as the United States, Siberia and Canada which have their own Arctic regions, and others, such as the Netherlands and Britain, which do not. The staff work on an interdisciplinary basis focusing their attention on pan-Arctic matters.
Jukka Jokimaki is studying the effects of the increasing urbanisation in the region on the bird communities, as well as doing a parallel study into the effects on humans. Tuula Tuiku is looking into the impact of the market economy on traditional reindeer herders in Russia, with particular reference to the oil industry.
On the environmental front, Minna Turunen is working with a team of Canadians and Finns on the effects of air pollution on pine needles. This research, which includes field investigations in Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula, has involved exposure of pine and spruce needles to acid rain and heavy metals such as copper and nickel. The work is scheduled to be completed this year and the interim results have already been published abroad, in Finland, Germany and Canada.
One project that will undoubtedly please many ecolobbyists is a study by Arja Huttenen into how ski slopes can be better planned - and planted - so as to minimise damage to the environment. At the centre there is also work involving investigation of the treelines across the Arctic circle.
Although the centre is not running any studies in Antarctica, the English climatologist John Moore was recruited in 1993 from the British Antarctic Survey. He is collaborating with the Norwegian Polar Institute on various projects relating to glaciers.
The centre tries to cooperate with all academic institutions involved with Arctic research and it has signed co-production agreements with Germany, Russia, the United States and Scandinavia. Additionally, the centre hosts International Arctic Studies Centre's Arctic global change programme and the Northern Forum Academy's secretariat.
Among some of the more surprising undertakings at the centre is Arja-Lasa Raisanen's investigation into ideas of sexuality within the Arctic region. There is also a study by Canadian academic Richard Langlais on the environmental effects of the military presence in the area.
Maria Leena Magnusson, the academic director at Rovaniemi, says: "We are all becoming aware that the times are gone when this domain was regarded as a dark and distant place, and some-what detached from the remainder of the world.
"Instead, we are now realising the close connections between polar regions and the global system that drives so many of the atmospheric and oceanic processes and which determine the climate of this planet."
As well as leading the field in interdisciplinary research, the centre also offers a residential Arctic studies programme that is available to Finnish people and overseas students. The course is not yet in a position to offer degrees, but it does give an introduction to circumpolar issues in the hope that participants will continue Arctic studies at their home universities.