Tag Archives: Svalbard

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

Goals

One of the season’s first forays onto dry trails at Cady Hill, Stowe, Vermont


With the transition from the spring to summer semesters here at Sterling College, the trails have dried out, the sun rises earlier, and it’s been easier to find a few more hours in the week to focus on training. The Sterling running team has started 5:00 am summer practices three times each week, which has helped add more miles and more hill workouts into my weekly regimen.

Some students are starting out and running trails for the first time, some training for the upcoming Mount Washington Road Race, and some have longer term goals. Each person’s goals are unique, of course — from running a mile to completing a race to running across a small (or medium-sized!) country — the actual goal doesn’t matter.

What matters more is that we find meaning and intention in the goals we do build, and keep close those whose strength can help support us. A good friend recently asked me how I could find such focus on resilience and hope. So much so that my vehicle for doing so — running — has become a central part of my life — and the processes of training, planning, organizing, mentoring, and sharing stories of both adventure and climate.

When I leave for Norway in mid-July, I know that I’ll have the support of family, friends — so many new friends who have helped to support this work. I’m looking forward to meeting with new friends along the Arctic Trail and during stops in Svalbard, Tromsø, Bodø, Kautokeino, and elsewhere.

My goal, huge as it may seem, is at its heart really simple: I am just trying to figure out the best way that I can contribute to building meaningful communities and having thoughtful conversations.

And running has become a way for me to do just that.

From a recent training run on Mount Elmore, Vermont

Facts and science in a complicated world

Amid the political, social, and emotional tumult across our national stage this year, I have treasured my time training as a time to step outside the web of tweets, truths, media blackouts, funding cuts, posturing, and ‘alternative facts.’

Maybe to help me find some solid footing, during my hours (and hours) running, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about glaciers.

In particular, I have become preoccupied with glacial responses to climate change,  which is the rest of this post is all about. I hope you read on, but if you don’t (if glaciers <gasp> aren’t your thing), at least take away this:

Few things in this world are truly simple, and most are deserving of close attention to nuance.

The world is complicated.

Facts are essential.

Embrace complexity.

Climate change is one of those things. We can track the changing surface temperatures, ocean salinity, water temperature, glacial melt, polar sea ice extent, sea level, shoreline erosion, permafrost melt, and so on — all of which are small parts of a hugely complex system.

And all of which have, for many years now, painted a clear and compelling picture of a warming climate.

Even as we begin to understand the complexity of the climatic system, though, we can often find puzzling contradictions, like surging glaciers, which appear to store energy for decades in a period of quiescence and then release a burst of movement so quick it can often be thousands of times faster than the glacier’s typical speed.

Only about 1% of all the world’s glaciers fall into the category of surging glaciers, and they appear in one of the greatest concentrations in the Svalbard archipelago 500 miles north of Norway. One glacial system in particular, Nathorstbreen, surged forward more than 15 km over the course of 4 years — sometimes moving as fast as 25 meters per day (2500 times faster than normal).

sund-nathorstbreen

A satellite view of the Nathorstbreen surge from ‘Surge dynamics in the Nathorstbreen glacier system, Svalbard’ by M. Sund, et al.

Glaciologist Heidi Sevestre, an expert on surging glaciers around the world, admits,

Today in a period of global glacier recession, glaciers surge in many parts of the world. Surging glaciers complicate the investigation of glacier response to climate variability.

Dramatic as it is, a surge is simply another data point in a massively complicated global system. A glacial surge does not mean that these glaciers are growing. Their volume is still dramatically decreasing. Between June and August 2015, in Svalbard alone, glaciers lost four and half million metric tons of meltwater every hour.

That’s nearly impossible to imagine, but it matters.

This is where beliefs and facts based on empirical observation meet — and where we need to work hard to be sure that far-reaching decisions are based on evidence and are not merely reactionary.

Silencing the sharing of data, as complex or unimaginable as that data may be, is anathema to building resilience, community, or sound decision making.

svalbard-glacier

The Nathorstbreen Glacial System image from TopoSvalbard / NorskPolarinstitutt

 

We started a new semester yesterday, and in an effort to help students explore their new surroundings here in Vermont, we looked at, among other things, Terry Tempest Williams’ 2004 essay, Ground Truthing, in which she writes about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska:

The power of nature is the power of a life in association. Nothing stands alone. On my haunches, I see a sunburst lichen attached to limestone; algae and fungi are working together to break down each rock into soil. I cannot help but recognize a radical form of democracy at play. each organism is rooted in its own biological niche, drawing power from its relationship to other organisms. An equality of being contributes to an ecological state of health and succession.

A radical form of democracy begins with us, the people, making clear that facts, science, and transparency are essential — whether for building resilient communities or making intelligent decisions about our relationship with the natural world.