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Reindeer may starve as climate change threatens food supply in Arctic

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Image: Niila Inga
Reindeer herder Niila Inga from the Laevas Sami community walks across the snow as the sun sets on Longastunturi mountain near Kiruna, Sweden.   -  
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Malin Moberg
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KIRUNA, Sweden — Niila Inga's community herds about 8,000 reindeer year-round in the Swedish arctic, moving them between traditional grazing grounds in the high mountains bordering Norway in the summer and the forests farther east in the winter, just as his forebears in the Sami indigenous community have for generations.

But Inga is troubled: Climate change is altering weather patterns here and affecting the herd's food supply.

"If we don't find better areas for them where they can graze and find food, then the reindeers will starve to death," he said.

Early snowfall this fall was followed by rain that froze, trapping food under a thick layer of ice, forcing the hungry animals have scattered from their traditional migration routes in search of new grazing grounds.

The arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Measurements by the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute show the country has warmed 1.64 degrees Celsius (2.95-degree Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times.

In Sweden's alpine region, this increase is even greater, with average winter temperatures between 1991 and 2017 up more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4-degree Fahrenheit) compared with the 1961-1990 average.

Snowfall is common in these areas, but as temperatures increase, occasional rainfall occurs — and "rain-on-snow" events are having devastating effects. The food is still there, but the reindeer can't reach it.

"Everyone wants to take the reindeers' area where they find food. But with climate change, we need more flexibility to move around," added Sanna Vannar, the 24-year-old president of the Swedish Sami Youth organization.

Together with eight other families elsewhere in the world, the organization launched a legal action in 2018 to force the European Union to set more ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Reindeer herder Niila Inga from the Laevas Sami community walks across the snow as the sun sets on Longastunturi mountain near Kiruna, Sweden.
Reindeer herder Niila Inga from the Laevas Sami community walks across the snow as the sun sets on Longastunturi mountain near Kiruna, Sweden. Malin Moberg

Earlier this year, the European General Court rejected their case on procedural grounds. They have appealed.

The EU's new executive Commission is expected to present a "European Green Deal" Wednesday, to coincide with a U.N. climate conference in Madrid.

Herders have also started working with Stockholm University, hoping to advance research that will broaden understanding about changing weather patterns.

As part of this, weather stations deep in the forests of the Laevas community are recording air and ground temperature, rainfall, wind speed and snowfall density.

"With this data we can connect my traditional knowledge and I see what the effects of it are," says Inga who has been working on the project since 2013 and has co-authored published scientific papers with Ninis Rosqvist, a professor of Natural Geography at Stockholm University.

Rosqvist directs a field station operating since the 1940s in the Swedish alpine region measuring glaciers and changes in snow and ice.

But through the collaboration with Inga, she realized that less "exciting" areas in the forests may be most crucial to understanding the impacts of changing climate.

Back in the forest, Inga is releasing onto the winter pastures a group of reindeer that had been separated from the herd when the animals scattered earlier in autumn.

"As long as they are forced to stay there, they'll get into worse and worse condition," he warned.

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