Exactly 103 years ago today, Petrograd at the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea became the focus of international attention. On March 8, 1917, a worker demonstration quickly snowballed into a full-scale revolution, toppling the Czar and establishing the Soviet Union. Now named St. Petersburg, the city is a major center of international commerce, located on the Gulf of Finland. That’s an arm of the Baltic Sea extending 260 miles from Finland and Estonia into Russia. At a latitude of 60 degrees north of the equator, St. Petersburg faces natural challenges year-round. The Arctic Circle is just 400 miles away. Sunlight occupies most of the day all summer. In June, sunset doesn’t come until half past ten at night, with sunrise just 5 hours later. During winter, the nights seem interminably long. Last December, the sun came up at 10 a.m., to disappear again after only 5 hours of daylight. This combines with the fact that St. Petersburg is at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, in the zone of prevailing westerly winds, which tend to push water towards the city. In addition, most of the urban area is on low-lying land less than 50 feet above sea level. The Neva River winds its way through town, splitting up into several arms as it drains into the Gulf.
With so much water nearby, flooding is a common concern. But when a Baltic Low develops, the risk increases rapidly. This past February, winter storm Dennis was producing that type of precarious condition. First, in the Atlantic, it hit French and British shores ferociously, causing massive flooding. Traveling east, Dennis lost some of its power, which was lucky for the Baltic. Home to the major cities of Copenhagen, Riga, Tallinn, St. Petersburg and Helsinki, this sea is almost landlocked. Like hurricane storm surges we see at U.S. shores, low-pressure cells raise Baltic sea levels to dangerous heights.
During the Great Flood of 1824, hundreds of people perished. Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman” recalls “evil waters thrust into windows” during the long November night, and the river’s battle against sea waves. Today, St. Petersburg is protected by a 16-mile long, 24 feet tall dam across the Gulf. It seems to be doing its job regarding storm floods. But problems with accumulation of pollutants in the closed-off water will necessitate further engineering.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.