Can climate adaptation be culturally sustainable in the Arctic?

A reindeer corral area where Sami herders gather their reindeer in winter in Kiruna, Sweden. Reindeer herding has been able to adapt to climate change across Arctic Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia over the last 20 years, but the affects of these changes on cultural transmission need to be better understood, says a recent Finnish study. (Eilis Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
While ways of reindeer husbandry may be adaptable to the changing climate, intergenerational transmission of Indigenous knowledge can be negatively impacted, according to a Finnish study.

“The main finding of the research project is that as a means of livelihood, reindeer husbandry is adaptable to climate change, but as a cultural way of life, it is highly endangered,” the researchers said.

The SAAMI project – Adaptation of the Saami people to climate change ” was done by Finland’s University of Oulu.

To do the study, the researchers spoke with 72 Sami people in 13 different reindeer cooperatives in Finland, along with the Sami Parliament in Finland.

Sami communities in Finland started noticing signs of climate change in the 1960s, the study found, but the environmental change has accelerated in their traditional lands over the course of the 2000s. And while Sami communities have been able to adapt to the day-to-day challenges of climate change, there are real concerns about how the changing environment will affect living Sami culture, the researchers heard.

“Climate change programmes make only general references to the Saami people, and their participation in the preparation of the programmes has been limited,” the researchers said. (Samediggi/Saamelaiskarajat/The Sami Parliament)

“Adaptation measures influence the reindeer work model and then the work model changes, also some of the traditions disappear while new emerge,” Klemetti Nakkalajarvi, one of the researchers told Eye on the Arctic in an email interview.

“The next generation learns only the adapted traditions, skills and reindeer work model. Some of the informants have said that if adaptation continues and more traditions are lost, is there Sami reindeer herding culture anymore or is it just a livelihood (or profession)?  Most of the interviewed herders have raised a serious concern on the future of Saami reindeer culture.”

Climate change effects
To measure how the altered environment was impacting Sami culture, the study divided the effects into groups:

  • Direct: a category that includes any changes observed in things like flora and fauna (74 impacts were identified in the study)
  • Indirect: a category that includes ecosystem changes (12 impacts were identified in the study)
  • Tertiary: a category that includes permanent changes from climate change to the Sami culture and ways of making a living (16 impacts were identified in the study)
Impacts on reindeer herding

One example is increasingly warm winters often leading to snow melting and then icing over, preventing reindeer from digging down to the lichen they rely on for food.

The study found that Sami reindeer herders had been able to adapt their herding practices in response to this kind of climate change by incorporating technology or alternate feeding methods for their animals when necessary, but that adapting to the cultural fallout from this is much less clear.

“Climate adaptation has resulted for example introduction of supplementary nutrition in Sami reindeer herding,” Nakkalajarvi said. “This has affected the behavior of reindeer, relationship between the reindeer and the herder and pasture cycle.”

“The Saami are concerned about the preservation and intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge under the cross-pressures created by climate change, competing forms of land use, economic boundaries and legislation. Adaptation to climate change constitutes cultural change,” researchers on the study found. (Ville-Riiko Fofonoff/Samediggi/Saamelaiskarajat/The Sami Parliament)

“The next generation learns only the reindeer work model that uses supplementary nutrition,” Nakkalajarvi said. “So climate change as such does not interrupt the cultural transmission, but since the culture changes due to adaptation measures, also the cultural tradition, skills and language passed on to one generation to the next change. So traditional knowledge becomes thinner.”

 Climate policy needs more Indigenous voices, say researchers

The study found that climate change disproportionately affects the Sami, but that they are underrepresented when it comes to contributing to climate policy, something that needs to change, the researchers said.

“Climate change programs make only general references to the Sami people, and their participation in the preparation of the programs has been limited,” the researchers said.

A landscape in Arctic Finland. The SAAMI project proposes that the Sami Parliament in Finland, along with the Skolt Saami village assembly, start discussion with Finland’s Ministry of Environment on the implementation of a Sami climate change adaptation policy. (Ville-Riiko Fofonoff/Samediggi/Saamelaiskarajat/ The Sami Parliament)

The study proposes 14 calls to action to facilitate climate adaptation and minimize the impact on living Sami culture, with many of points advocating for more Indigenous involvement in climate policy.

Among other actions, the project proposes that a joint expert body be created to make sure that climate researchers and holders of traditional Sami knowledge are in frequent contact. 

“According to our analysis, current Climate Act and national strategies on climate change overlook Sami people,” Nakkalajarvi said. 

“We proposed to establish a Sami Climate panel. It would be an independent organ. it’s members would include scientists from different disciplines and Sami traditional knowledge holders. The panel would be responsible for providing data on the effects of climate change and participating in climate policy. Another concrete proposal includes drafting of the Sami climate change adaptation policy.

“Finland is currently renewing its Climate Act. This creates a good possibility for the Sami to propose actions that support Sami needs and aims.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Indigenous leaders in northwestern Canada declare climate emergency, CBC News

Finland: Finland behind on sustainable development goals, Yle News

Greenland: COVID-19 delay, early ice melt challenge international Arctic science mission, The Associated Press

Iceland: Ice-free Arctic summers likely by 2050, even with climate action: study, Radio Canada International

Norway: Norway to expand network of electric car chargers across Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Red alert for northern Siberia as heat shocks threaten tundra life, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: January temperatures about 10°C above normal in parts of northern Sweden, says weather service, Radio Sweden

United States: Temperatures nearing all-time records in Southcentral Alaska, Alaska Public Media

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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