Arctic warming wreaking havoc on reindeer herds
KAUTOKEINO, Norway — Winter temperatures in Norway’s Lapland could rise dramatically this century, with potentially devastating consequences for the region’s reindeer and the indigenous Sami people who make their living herding them.
A vast frozen tundra, the mountainous Finnmark plateau in Norway’s far north, is experiencing a hot spell — relatively speaking — wreaking havoc on the centuries-old Sami way of life.
“We already feel the effects of global warming here,” says Per Gaup, a reindeer herder in his 60s out on the job. “I can see that we’re losing more reindeer because of climate change.”
The continental climate with cold and dry winters is gradually becoming more like that of coastal areas, with milder temperatures and more rain.
The change affects grazing conditions for the 146,000 or so semi-domesticated reindeer in the region that feed on lichen and moss under the snow.
“When there’s more snow and it turns hard, the animals die because there’s less to eat, especially the young ones who are at the bottom of the hierarchy,” said Gaup, astride his snowmobile with an orange lasso slung across his chest.
One of the Sami dialects counts no fewer than 318 words to describe different types of snow. “Seanas”, for example, means a kind of grainy snow ideal for reindeer, making it easy for them to dig out the lichen and moss with their hooves.
But it has to be very cold to have that kind of snow.
While temperatures i n Kautokeino, Norway’s main reindeer-herding hub, used to regularly drop to minus 40 C for several weeks at a time, nowadays that happens only rarely and briefly.
And today’s conditions are just a taste of what is to come.
The mercury is expected to rise by 7 C to 8 C in winter in Finnmark by the end of this century, according to Rasmus Benestad, a researcher at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.
A recurring problem for the reindeer now is alternating periods of thaw and freezing, which create thick layers of ice that the starving reindeer are unable to penetrate with their hooves.
When reindeer can’ t access the lichen and moss on their herder’s grazing grounds, the flocks seek out other pastures. This can cause conflicts between herders over grazing grounds, which are not officially demarcated, and may require the herders to resort to the onerous and heavy task of putting out fodder.
I can see that we’re losing more reindeer because of climate change.” Per Gaup, a colorful reindeer herder semi-domesticated reindeer on Norway’s Finnmark plateau are affected by climate change
The changing climate also complicates the twiceyearly transhumance, when the herders move the reindeer from their summer grazing grounds along the coast to their winter pastures in the Finnmark mountains, and vice versa.
Because of longer autumns, the ice, now often thinner and unpredictable, can give way under the weight of the reindeer as they cross waterways, sometimes taking the animals, and even their herders, into the deep.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” said another herder, alarm in his voice.
“Last year, I lost at least 12 reindeer that fell through the ice. I wasn’t able to get them out, and they died.”
In November 2009, almost 300 animals from a single herd drowned in a fast-moving river in neighboring Sweden.