Guest Blog and Photos by Amanda

At the end of December, I sat in a kitchen above the Arctic Circle with an outdoor temperature of 30 degrees Fahrenheit while the entire east coast of the United States experienced near or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The men Aaron worked for (primarily reindeer herders) exclaimed in amazement: it is colder in New York City than it is here! This comparison meant a lot for their understanding of the world. Aaron and I added a piece that hit home for us: it is colder in citrus-growing Florida than it is in polar Jokkmokk.

 

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Ice lanterns decorate the streets of Jokkmokk during the coldest days.

Along the Norrbotten coast, the month of March was warmer than any other March on record, between 3 to 6 degrees warmer. The ice on Storsjön in Ostersund melted earlier than ever before on record, while ice along the northern archipelago was rare and weak.

One interpretation of this data is that climate change will make the climate of northern Sweden milder as temperatures rise more quickly in the Arctic than other parts of the world. These predictions are all based on models, so don’t hold me to this statement.

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Aaron skates along the isleden in Luleå, an important winter activity in Sweden.

At first glance, this result sounds fantastic. However, we’ve seen how a milder climate negatively impacts those people who rely on snow and ice for their livelihoods.

In December, stress set in for reindeer herders. Warm temperatures and heavy, wet Oregon-like snow combined to create a thick layer of snow/ice. Reindeer have difficulty breaking through this cover to reach critical winter feed hidden under the snow. They prefer Utah’s champagne powder. So, some of the herders began feeding their reindeer. Temperatures dropped in January.

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Reindeer are enclosed in winter corrals where owners can be sure they are fed.

But then another thaw occurred followed by a freeze, and another thaw, and another, while snow continued to fall creating layers and layers of impenetrable snow-concrete. Most herders gathered their reindeer in corrals because starving reindeer scatter far and wide in search of food. There, the reindeer were fed combinations of pelleted food, hay, and if they were lucky, tree lichens (the traditional emergency ration that has disappeared because of logging and slow regrowth).

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Who knew lichens could be so delicious. This tamed reindeer handles tourists as long as there are lichen treats.

When reindeer are kept under these conditions (un-natural feed), their meat loses some of those good qualities they are so praised for: omega-3 fatty acids, low cholesterol, and high vitamin and mineral contents. Those qualities do return quickly once they are released onto natural pasture. But the idea of the semi-wild reindeer also gets lost, buried under months of feed, and it becomes harder to distinguish the uniqueness of herding from ranching.

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Pelleted food are delivered by the ton to herders throughout the region.

The cost of feeding reindeer is also impeding. Herders receive some help from the Swedish Sami Parliament, which receives funding from the Swedish government and the EU. Think of these as disaster relief funds.

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Cute reindeer calf sneaks a bite of freshly delivered food.

One group of herders in our region moves their 1000 reindeer to the coastal archipelago annually. The herders save money by keeping the reindeer on natural feed, more easily accessed since there is less snow at the coast. The reindeer cross to the islands on the ice. Yet this year, the ice melted, and an epic drama began. How would these reindeer get back to the main land without ice to cross on?

The newspaper covered the unfolding catastrophe nearly every day: had it been cold enough to freeze? Were the reindeer able to make it over? At the end of March, temperatures dropped below freezing and ice formed. The first day the reindeer didn’t dare cross – the ice was like a slippery mirror and the reindeer couldn’t stand and couldn’t tell if it was open water or firm ground. Snow fell overnight, and the reindeer were escorted across 50 at a time to ensure they weren’t too heavy on the thin ice.

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Reindeer circulate in a large corral before being moved.

Then began the modern migration. Large trucks transported them west, through Jokkmokk (where I watched load after load pass through main street from my window), and to Ritsem, just west of Saltoluokta where Aaron was working.

Migration

Good thing the reindeer continue to graze. Research shows that reindeer grazing can impede global warming by creating a shrubless landscape that reflects light as snow does (the albedo effect). Thus herbivores (and their human caretakers) can play a pivotal role in maintaining the tundra, which may in turn help the rest of us (http://www.ncoetundra.utu.fi/).

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We spied reindeer already grazing on these melted patches in the fjäll.

Everyone talks about climate change here. At the national and regional levels, Sweden has put in place Risk and Vulnerability Plans to respond to possible impacts. At a recent conference, a researcher adeptly pointed out that northern Sweden may experience benign impacts from climate change. In fact, she asked, are the rural municipalities actually preparing for an influx of people, from the Netherlands for example, whose lands will be flooded?

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Spring arrives along the Lule River. Swans, ducks, and loons arrive immediately as the ice opens.

Clearly the US government must also plan in order to protect its citizens because the shifts in weather we have recently witnessed have been anything but benign. Aaron and I have watched international coverage of failed US state and regional governments’ responses to extreme weather this winter. We sit snugly in Jokkmokk, watching its temperatures rise and one of its main industries suffer.

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