Arc­tic warm­ing wreak­ing havoc on rein­deer herds

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

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.

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