In Sweden's Arctic, ice atop snow leaves reindeer starving

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In this Saturday, Nov. 30. 2019 photo, reindeer in a corral at Lappeasuando near Kiruna await to be released onto the winter pastures. A collaboration between reindeer herders and scientists is attempting to shed light on dramatic weather changes and develop tools to better predict weather events and their impacts. Unusual weather patterns in Swedens arctic region seem to be jeopardising the migrating animals traditional grazing grounds, as rainfall during the winter has led to thick layers of snowy ice that block access to food. (AP Photo/Malin Moberg)

KIRUNA – Thick reindeer fur boots and a fur hat covering most of his face shielded Niila Inga from freezing winds as he raced his snowmobile up to a mountain top overlooking his reindeer in the Swedish arctic.

His community herds about 8,000 reindeer year-round, 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: His reindeer are hungry, and he can do little about it. 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.

Already pressured by the mining and forestry industry, and other development that encroach on grazing land, Sami herding communities fear climate change could mean the end of their traditional lifestyle.

Slipping his hand from a massive reindeer skin mitten, Inga illustrated the problem, plunging his hand into the crusted snow and pulling out a hard piece of ice close to the soil.

Unusually early snowfall in autumn was followed by rain that froze, trapping food under a thick layer of ice. Unable to eat, the hungry animals have scattered from their traditional migration routes in search of new grazing grounds.

Half the herd carried on east as planned, while the rest retreated to the mountains where predators abound, and the risk of avalanches is great.