Climate Witness: Olav Mathis Eira, Norway
During the last 20 years I have observed various changes in the climate. The most urgent change for us, the Sámi people who live of the reindeer, has been the winter rains. Rain in the winter is normally very rare this far North. In the old days this used to happen only every 30 years and we had ancient methods of foretelling the weather. Now this is no longer possible.
The number of storms and the amount of precipitation is increasing. It rains when it should not rain and that makes the ice on lakes and rivers unstable. This has made traditional roads over the ice dangerous, causing accidents when we try to get to the herds. Two of my nephews went through the ice where it usually should have been safe at that time of year. One of them nearly drowned, but luckily they both came from it unharmed.
Ice covers the reindeer food
The weather changes make the conditions for reindeer herding difficult. The snow gets icy from the rain so that the reindeer cannot get through down to the food, the reindeer lichens, which they depend on to survive in the winter. We can no longer predict the weather like we could before. In the beginning of the 1990’s this was part of the reason why reindeer owners lost 90 per cent of their herds.
Now we have to feed the reindeers in the winter. It is a long way to go to bring the food to them, and it is, of course, very expensive. However, it is the only choice we have if we want to keep herding. Still, reindeer numbers are going down. We don’t know why but believe the climate changes to be the most probable cause.
Where we previously used to get snow in early October, we now sometimes have to wait until Christmas. The snow also disappears earlier every year. I used to hang out reindeer meat to dry in April and now I have to do it in February to avoid the flies.
These are some of the reasons the climate changes have become an important topic to the Sámi people. With the warmer climate comes more insects, especially mosquitoes and flies. The reindeers do not like insects, which is pushing them further up in the mountains where food is scarcer.
Higher tree line
The tree line climbs higher year by year. I believe the forests increase more year by year, and the forest down here gets thicker and thicker.
We observe new birds and insects which do not have a name in Sámi. Parasites that normally die during winter, survive. My neighbour lost 70 reindeers this way.
We have seen years with poor grazing before, but from the mid-eighties there were several years of inadequate grazing, something which happened again in the beginning of the 1990’s, when we lost so much of the stock.
Since the start of the 1990’s, reindeer owners have pretty much agreed that what we see now is completely unnatural. There are no long periods of frost anymore. This also makes the big migration of the reindeers in spring more difficult. The number of losses during this period are increasing.
In the beginning the weather changes caused enormous problems for us. We were thinking about how we should survive in this business. Where would we move? It causes instability in our lifestyle. But we are adjusting by moving the reindeers earlier, and no longer keep to the old traditions of when this is to be done. We have taught our reindeer to eat pellets in spite of how expensive they are. After all, we have ascertained that the climate changes are inevitable. They are already upon us.
Now a research project, Ealat, a co-operation between several organisations and research institutes, amongst them the World Reindeer Herders Union, is trying to map out how the climate change will affect the reindeer herding.
Maybe we have to turn the whole cycle around in the future? If it rains when it is not supposed to rain we might have to stay by the coast during spring and summer instead of on the plains.
I have three sons. One of them will hopefully keep to the family tradition of reindeer herding. But it is no longer a good life. It is an insecure future.
Scientific reviewReviewed by: Lars R. Hole, Senior Scientist, Norwegian Institute for Air Research Dept. Atmosphere and Climate
These observations are consistent with the general warming and increasing precipitation that been observed in Norway since the late 1800s. Climate models also indicate more variability in the weather in Northern Norway which makes it less predictable. More information about future climate can be obtained from the RegClim project.
However, looking at climate trends (temperature and precipitation) in Norway since the late 1800s, there are large differences in different regions and trends are different in different seasons. There are also are variations from year to year and from decade to decade. For example the 1930s were particularly warm in Northern Norway and in the Troms county where Lavangen is located. Winter temperatures were just as high as in the 90s. On the other hand, winters in the 1960s and 1980s were particularly cold in this region. As a result, trends in winter temperatures in the last 100 years are not so strong, only about +0.04 oC per decade.
Similarly, over the last century there is only a few percent increase in winter precipitation in Troms and large decadal variability. But in the last two decade there has been a much stronger increase.
However, all climate research indicate that there will be higher temperatures and more precipitation, particularly in winter, in Northern Norway. Icing but also deeper snow cover in mid winter will probably cause problems for reindeer herding. Onset of spring will be earlier and traditional reindeer herding will have to adjust to these changes.
All articles are subject to scientific review by a member of the Climate Witness Science Advisory Panel.