Arctic peoples and scientists are sharing experiences in hopes of finding climate solutions.
While scientists focus on the loss of sea ice in Arctic ecosystems, and countries like China and the United Kingdom race to capitalize on new sea routes, some researchers are instead focused on the people who live there. They’re hearing about the difficulties that climate change is bringing to entire communities.
Ambio, a journal supported by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, recently published findings drawn from conversations with indigenous peoples living in Russian and Scandinavian regions – many of them traditionally nomadic reindeer herders. The dialogue, supported by the European Union’s INTERACT program for the Arctic, underscored a different perspective drawn from the people’s lived experience.
“Compared to pre-industrial levels, the mean annual surface temperature in the north of Siberia has increased markedly by about 4°C over the past 50 years,” explained the group of researchers from Russia and six European nations who submitted the paper. They speak a language of “anthropogenic drivers of environmental change” and measure reduced sea ice surfaces and permafrost-related methane emissions, while noting the increase in severe Siberian wildfires and Arctic dust storms.
Yet the members of the Reindeer Herders Association of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, and communities like them who participated in the exchanges, locate the impacts in an ongoing narrative about their traditions and their fears. The reindeer aren’t thriving on decreased levels of vegetation. The plants they use for medicinal purposes are threatened. Invasive insects and growing populations of horseflies and mosquitoes put their animals at risk. Their own health is threatened by the potential for new diseases for which they have no immunity, and the diet and lifestyle changes.
The extractive industries are a concern. The snowmobiles are a problem, as the melting Arctic attracts tourists to Scandinavian regions that have traditional herder migration routes and land use patterns. Even the scientists arriving to help them are often seen as invasive and out-of-touch, as are the decision-makers – the third group of the INTERACT dialogue participants – with whom they may feel a disconnect.
In one clear but heartbreaking example of their differing views, the Arctic inhabitants said their life expectancies had decreased because of climate change. That’s not true, based on the way scientists commonly define life expectancy and the data that show it’s actually increased, particularly for the Russians in the group. What they mean is quality of life, which they view as linked to the environment, and that’s changed so much that older people, especially men, are no longer vibrant, active participants.
“Added to the concerns over life expectancy is a change in demography because … populations are decreasing due to abandonment of agricultural land and villages and a movement to towns and cities,” the paper explains. It’s not just individual lives, but a way of life that is melting beneath their feet.
Working together is the key, and that begins with a shared language of climate impacts and adaptation.
“It is important to highlight that the representatives of the different groups have completely different perceptions of the events happening in everyday life so hardly ever understand each other in official dialogue,” the authors concluded. “The format of the workshop described here forced the different groups to listen to the other side, giving participants insights into the other groups’ ways of thinking and thus helped to overcome perceived obstacles to effective communication between the groups.”