In the far north of Europe live the Saami people whose culture has existed before the Finnish, Swedish and the Vikings. Living in the Arctic regions of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia, they have survived the harshest environment for thousands of years. But the changing climate has made life more difficult for the Saami, who are now fighting through warmer and increasingly unpredictable conditions in the Arctic.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. Unpredictable ice sheets make traditional routes over frozen lakes dangerous. People and reindeer have drowned because of unusually thin ice. Earlier this year, scientists were alarmed when the strongest and thickest Arctic sea ice north of Greenland started to break up for the first time on record. This summer’s unprecedented drought and wildfires in the Arctic Circle have done serious damage to the winter grazing lands of reindeer, which will take decades to recover.

Photo: Mose Agestam

Reindeers are an essential part of life for the Saami. They use them for transport, milk and meat production. Traditional knowledge on reindeer herding has been passed down from generation to generation, including the knowledge of how to use land during extreme weather fluctuations. However, due to the drastic increase in temperatures, Saami reindeer herders are struggling.

Jonas Vannar recalls the difficulties he is facing as a Saami reindeer herder. Due to the warming Arctic and increasing deforestation, it has been more difficult for the reindeers to find lichen, their primary source of food.

“As a reindeer herder you need the reindeer to be able to find food on their own. They smell the lichen under the snow. When it gets warm during the winter and then cold again, you get layers of ice building up on the ground, and they can’t smell the lichen. The reindeer then start looking for lichen hanging from trees. […] It makes the conflict with the forestry industry worse because these mostly grow on old trees. When you cut down the forest, the hanging lichen also disappears” says Vannar. He has experienced reindeer dying in his arms due to lack of food. Something, he says, he never wants to have to go through again.

But the problems the Saami face are not only climate change.

Large energy projects, such as hydropower dams, threaten their way of living. The dams block the paths of the reindeer, which run along river valleys, and change the rivers’ natural patterns. Usually, rivers have greater flow in the summer than in winter. The dams collect water in the summer and release it during winter, further exacerbating the thinning of the ice sheets. Vannar’s Saami village had to move all the reindeer paths up on the land. Wind farms on reindeer grazing land cut off their migration routes, a stark reminder that clean energy solutions need to be implemented taking into account the needs of the ecosystem and of the local communities.

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