Global warming a growing threat to Arctic reindeer (AFP)

November 17, 2009 • Philip BurgessReindeer, Reindeer Herders

by Catherine Marciano.  JARFJORD, Norway (AFP) – On Norway’s border with Russia, the consequences of climate change are affecting the reindeer population as rising temperatures hit food stocks and industry growth eats into vital grazing land.

“Over the past three years, I’ve had to give some hay to my 800 reindeer during the coldest months. It’s more expensive and it gives me more work,” said Jan Egil Trasti, a reindeer herder from the native Sami people.

The reason: the lichen his animals graze on has become tougher to find as winter temperatures rise. The snow thaws, and along with rain, then freezes anew — covering the ground in layers impervious to all but the most tenacious reindeer.

Grazing land is also disappearing under the weight of industry as buildings, pipelines, roads and other infrastructure increasingly dot old pastures.

Trasti’s nomadic ancestors have raised these beasts for hundreds of years. His grandfather worked the Russian tundra before moving to the Norwegian coast.

“I have it in my blood. I hope one of my sons will take over,” the herder said. He has, though, a hint of doubt in his eyes, his meagre earnings well below the average Norwegian salary.

Only a minority of Sami — some 3,000 — make their living raising and herding in Norway, home to around 240,000 reindeer.

In this month of November, just weeks ahead of a key UN climate summit in Denmark, snow has not yet blanketed the flora in the Far North.

Indeed temperatures in this region near the Barents Sea are unseasonably mild, above zero degrees Celsius.

In the past, when the snows have come, they have generally fallen on dry ground, whereas now they fall on lichen engorged with water.

Trasti is no scientist, and environmental experts hesitate to link specific weather events to long-term climate change, but trends over the last several decades have clearly shown the Arctic hit hard by global warming.

In September, a study in the journal Science reported dramatic effects on animals in the Arctic due to a one-degree Celsius warming over the past 150 years.

The Arctic tends to warm three times faster than elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere because of a phenomenon called Arctic amplification — a separate study in the same journal noted that summer temperatures were some 1.4 degrees Celsius warmer than they should have been by the year 2000.

Jonathan Colman, specialist in “reindeer ecology” at the University of Oslo, explained that sometimes “there’s wet ice in the lichen.”

“It gets into their stomachs and they can’t digest the food.”

To avoid losing precious livestock, the Sami are forced to move reindeer to drier ground, meaning it is more important than ever to respect the tradition of driving herds across the entire north of the nation.

An animal can sell for 240 euros (359 dollars), and its meat for around seven euros a kilogramme (10.46 dollars per 2.2 pounds).

Trasti can make extra money selling the hides or antlers to tourists, and also gets compensation if his animals are killed by predators.

Norwegian Sami follow the herd with vehicles, but their cousins in Russia still accompany the animals with sleds, camping as they go.

But the drive, and the ability to follow the reindeer, has been increasingly hampered by industrialisation.

An iron ore mine which was closed down 15 years ago has re-opened nearby, while elsewhere liquid gas terminals, wind farms and roads are dotted across, or separate, traditional pastures.

The International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry has expressed regret that “the herders have only a marginal influence on the development of their own traditional lands.”

That’s despite a law that “Norway was built on the territory of two people, the Sami and the Norwegians,” said Christina Henriksen, a Sami who coordinates an aid programme for native peoples in the Arctic region.

“For me, being a Sami means herding reindeer,” said Trasti, who does not speak his native language.

“My parents weren’t allowed to speak Sami at school in the 60’s,” he said, and out of guilt, they “didn’t teach us the language.”

For the moment though, reindeer numbers are holding up under the strain of global warming, but that’s a fact Colman puts down to their very resilience.

“If reindeer weren’t as adaptable, there wouldn’t be any left,” he said.