For Traditional Reindeer Herders, “This New Snow Has No Name”

Arctic warming threatens the ways of Europe’s only indigenous people.

Reindeer in a corral in Rakten, Sweden, await transport to winter pastures.Malin Moberg/AP

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This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Sami, the only indigenous people left in Europe, have more than 100 different words for snow. From seaŋáš, a fluffy, grainy snow that moves easily, to tjaevi, flakes that stick together and are hard to dig, the names are based on its texture, depth, density, and the harsh conditions of the Arctic winter.

But the Sami of Sápmi, who are traditionally fishers, trappers, and reindeer herders, do not yet have a word for what they are seeing more often on the ground.

“This new snow has no name,” said Lars-Anders Kuhmunen, a reindeer herder from Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town, near the Norwegian border. “I don’t know what it is. It is like early tjaevi, which normally comes in March. The winters are warmer now and there is rain, making the ground icy. The snow on top is very bad snow and the reindeer can’t dig for their food.”

The Arctic is warming not twice as quickly as the rest of the world, as previously believed, but four times as fast, according to a paper published in Science last week. Sápmi, an area that stretches over parts of four countries—Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia—and is hemmed by three seas, recorded its hottest temperature for more than a century in July this year, hitting 33.6 C (92.5 F) during a summer heatwave.

Kuhmunen and other reindeer herders, who spend their days and often nights tending the herds scattered across vast tundras, are on the frontline of the climate crisis. Their reindeer, a semi-domestic species that has adapted to the harsh conditions of the polar region, are being pushed to the limit by the changes, they say. The animals use their shovel-like hooves to dig for lichen, their main winter food supply, as well as other plants that grow under the snow. But finding food is increasingly difficult.

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