Story at a glance

  • The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and in the snowy, alpine reaches of northern Sweden it is increasing the proportion of precipitation that falls as rain instead of snow.
  • Rain falling on top of snow can quickly freeze, forming a glass-like barrier that prevents reindeer from accessing the grasses beneath.
  • This is starving the herds of reindeer that form the backbone of the indigenous Sami community’s ancient way of life, threatening their cultural identity.

The indigenous Sami communities in the Swedish Arctic have been herding reindeer for generations. But their way of life is being threatened by climate change, as shifting weather patterns are affecting the reindeer herds’ food supply, the Associated Press (AP) reports

The mining and timber industries along with other development are shrinking the land available for grazing, but the Sami fear the threat posed by climate change could end their whole way of life.

“If we don’t find better areas for them where they can graze and find food, then the reindeers will starve to death,” Sami herder Niila Inga told the AP.

Weather patterns that were once highly unusual are now happening several times a year, and they can trap the reindeer’s food beneath a layer of ice, which forms when early snows in autumn are followed by rain that then freezes like a layer of glass over the snow-crusted grasses. 

"Extreme and strange weather are getting more and more normal, it happens several times a year,” Inga told the AP.

Climate change is heating up the Arctic, where the Sami graze their reindeer, twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The warmer temperatures make rain more common in a region that has hitherto been defined by cold and snow.  

Sweden country has warmed 2.95 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times. In the mountains, where the reindeer roam, climate change is happening even faster: Winter temperatures between 1991 and 2017 have risen 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1961-1990 average.

As temperatures increase, precipitation that would normally be snow is more frequently falling as rain, leaving the reindeer with a food source they can’t access. The herds struggle to find enough food to survive the winter as a result, with some females even aborting their calves from lack of food.

This is bad for both the reindeer and the Sami herders who depend on them for their livelihood. The Sami are a formerly nomadic people that live in parts of Northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the northwest corner of Russia. Of the roughly 70,000 Sami left today, just 10 percent herd reindeer — making a modest living selling meat, hides and goods crafted from antler.

“Everyone wants to take the reindeers’ area where they find food. But with climate change, we need more flexibility to move around,” Sanna Vannar, a 24-year-old Sami herder, told the AP. “Here you can’t find food, but maybe you can find food there, but there they want to clear-cut the forest and that’s the problem.”

Vannar leads the Swedish Sami Youth organization, which in 2018 joined other families in a legal action demanding the European Union aggressively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Earlier this year, their case was rejected on procedural grounds, but has since been appealed.

Sami herders are now also working with researchers from Stockholm University who are studying the region’s changing climate. The Sami add their ancestral knowledge and intimate understanding of the fluctuations taking place in the snowy mountains to measurements from weather stations including ground and air temperature, rainfall, wind speed and snowfall. 

Ninis Rosqvist, one of the university researchers involved in the project, told the AP that, “As a scientist I can measure that something is happening, but I don’t know the impact of it on, in this case, the whole ecosystem. And that’s why you need their knowledge.” The researchers hope the collaboration's data bolsters the Sami's legal argument.

But, climate change shows no signs of slowing, and unless decision-makers grant the Sami rights to expand their herds’ grazing into new lands the reindeer and an ancient way of life may be doomed.

Published on Dec 12, 2019