Reindeer and Climate Change

reindeer line art.jpeg

During my run north along the Arctic Trail in August, I will pass through substantial sections of Norway, Sweden, and Finland en route to Kautokeino from Sulitjelma.

The trail’s 500 miles, which traverses much ofSápmi, the homeland of the Sami, can be divided according to countries, border crossings, biomes, topography, habitations, and, maybe most interesting, by reindeer herding districts. The route I’m following passes through 25 separate named herding districts, each of which supports the structure of a complex and dynamic cultural/ecological Sami tradition of herding semi-domesticated reindeer.

As I’ve been tracing the Arctic Trail on its route through much of  the different districts in Norway, Sweden, and Finland (the full list is at the end of this post), I have been falling in love with the names — the language delineating placenames, relationships, and a complex system of ecologies, cultural customs, tradition, regulation, and contemporary political boundaries.

The principal goals of the multi-year Climate Run project are to

(1) bear witness to changing ecologies and cultures in the face of a rapidly changing climate

(2) cultivate conversation and build community around climate resilience

(3) change the narrative about climate change from one of resistance to one of resilience.

One way that I plan to engage in these conversations is by understanding the impact of climate change on reindeer herds across Sápmi as well as Sami adaptations to traditional practices made necessary by ecological change. Reindeer herding has been and continues to be an essential component of Sami identity, economy, and cultural tradition. By some accounts, up to 40% of all of Norway’s land is open to reindeer herding, and there are an estimated 700,000 reindeer across three northern Scandinavian countries. With a Sami population of just over 58,000, that’s more than 10 reindeer per individual!

Sami herders have already noticed significant changes in foraging patterns and the predictability of seasonal changes, which has led to an actual decrease in individual reindeer size — for example an average 12% weight loss over the past 16 years among reindeer in Svalbard.

Heikki Hirvasvuopio describes the problem on the mainland this way:

During autumn times, the weather fluctuates so much, there is rain and mild weather.This ruins the lichen access for the reindeer. In some years this has caused massive loss of reindeers. It is very simple – when the bottom layer freezes, reindeer cannot access the lichen. This is extremely different from the previous years. This is one of the reasons why there is less lichen. The reindeer has to claw to force the lichen out and the whole plant comes complete with roots. It takes . . . extremely long for a lichen to regenerate when you remove the roots of the lichen.

As we move into a political era of renewed climate change skepticism, and, as of this writing, the U.S.’s continuing role in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement is doubtful, it’s ever more important to demonstrate the real tangible impacts of a changing climate on not only global systems but on something as simple — yet devastating — as a reindeer’s ability to reach its food source — and the far-reaching impact this regional issue can have.

sapmi.jpg

Here’s a listing of the twenty-five herding districts along the Arctic Trail, listed from South to North through Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

Sjonkfjell
Svaipa
Semisjaur-Njarg
Luokta Måvas
Tuorpon
Hellemo
Frostisen
Skjomen
Sirkas
Sörkaitum
Baste
Girjas
Laevaas
Gabna
Altevatn
Dividalen
Tamok/Rosta
Talma
Saarivuoma
Lainiovuoma
Könkämä
Käsivarsi
Cohkolat ja Biertavárri
Fávrrosorda
Guovdageainnu cakcaorohat

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