"The Treeline is Out of Control’: How the Climate Crisis is Turning the Arctic green

In northern Norway, trees are rapidly taking over the tundra and threatening an ancient way of life that depends on snow and ice.  

Altafjord is a wide expanse of black water on the edge of the Barents Sea, ringed with mountains. Alta is a relatively large town in the Finnmark province, the crown of the horse’s mane that forms Norway’s jagged coastline and Europe’s northern shore. Here at sea level the most northerly trees in Europe are moving upslope, gobbling up the tundra as they go. The people and animals that live here are trying to make sense of the rapid changes with a mixture of confusion, denial and panic. #climatecrisis

Breivikeidet, Norway.  Image Getty Images

Reindeer pulling sleighs in Breivikeidet, Norway.  Photograph: Morten Falch | Getty Images.

Dawn at 70 degrees north during winter lasts nearly the whole day. The sun never rises, the day is permanently on the verge of breaking. It is disorienting. On the way to city hall from the guesthouse, I spied few pedestrians. Alta is a town built along American principles – that is to say a town built for a world in which petrol is cheap and cars are taken for granted. It is a landscape of shopping malls, gas stations and spaced-out residential suburbs. Normally at this time of year it isn’t safe to be outside for long without wearing animal skins, but on the day of my visit it was only -1C.

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All along the road to the city center were rows of young Scots pines, their orangey bark contrasting with the fresh dusting of snow. Intermingled with the pines were shorter, ragged-looking trees with lumpy trunks, wizened branches and fine twigs like gnarled fingers: Betula pubescens, downy birch. It is these trees that had brought me here, to the office of Hallgeir Strifeldt, the director of planning for the municipality of Alta, at 9am on a Monday in the middle of winter.

As the planet warms, the Arctic treeline is accelerating towards the pole, turning the white landscape to green. The trees used to creep forward a few centimeters every year; now they are leaping north at a rate of 40 to 50 meters a year. In the European Arctic, the birch is the leader of the pack.

Finnmark area in Norway, Artic depicts climate change

Downy birch is one of few broadleaved deciduous trees in the Arctic and it is hardier even than most conifers. Its “down” is a soft coating of hairs that acts like a fur coat in the punishing cold. Often found cooperating with pines and spruce at lower latitudes and altitudes, above a certain point the birch leaves the others behind and goes on alone for hundreds of miles.

It might be unprepossessing, even ugly, with its stumpy branches and pockmarked bark, but this tough little tree is a survivor and a pioneer, essential to nearly all life in the Arctic. Used by humans for tools, houses, fuel, food and medicine, it is home to microbes, fungi and insects central to the food chain, and it is critical for sheltering other plants needed to make a forest. The downy birch dictates the terms of what can grow, survive and move in the areas in which it takes hold. And, as the Arctic heats up, that range is expanding fast.

Alta’s town hall is a modern timber-clad building radiating orange light. The entrance vestibule is a two-stage affair, like a submarine airlock, where you must pass through a bath of blasting hot air. When I arrived, the receptionist was in a good mood. She, like everyone in Alta, was relieved. Finally, there was some snow and finally the temperature was below freezing, even if only just.

“It gets very dark when we don’t have any snow,” said Strifeldt, ensconced in his modern office. Winters have been getting gradually warmer in recent years, but the warmth when I visited was, he said, “extreme”. The whole community had been in a state of panic, reindeer herders posting photos of a snowless tundra on Facebook.

Strifeldt is a city dweller, a mild man with rimless glasses and a reserved air. He is also half-Sami, the indigenous people of Arctic Europe who share DNA and a common linguistic heritage with the peoples of the circumpolar region, from Finland to Russia across the Bering Strait to Alaska, Labrador and back to Greenland. The Sami used to migrate across the land without hindrance, but now the 80,000 who remain find themselves instead citizens of one of four different modern nations: Norway, Sweden, Finland or Russia. They are the only indigenous group in Europe recognized by the United Nations.

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Reindeer are central to Norway but suffer from climate change.  photo by Julien Chatelain

Reindeer are central to Strifeldt’s identity, as they are for all Sami. His mother’s family were reindeer herders, but when his grandmother died in childbirth on the plateau, his grandfather brought his infant mother to Alta, and left her with a Norwegian family to raise. The grandfather went back to his herds beneath the wide skies of the plateau, to his laavo – a traditional tent much like a tipi – and married again. Hallgeir has a foot in the city and the laavo. When I saw him later that week at a Sami cultural event, he was wearing the traditional Sami felt jacket embroidered with gold, a silk scarf, reindeer-skin trousers and boots and an elaborately worked silver belt.

Reindeer are endearing animals, with their wide brown eyes, furry antlers, soft fur and enormous snow-proof padded hooves. Sami herders recognize every member of their herd individually. Love is an insufficient word for the relationship: codependency comes closer. The people move because the reindeer move in search of grazing. Their culture has evolved around the migratory needs of the herds. But the breakdown in weather is upsetting this cycle. The Sami are among the first victims of climate breakdown, forced to contemplate a little earlier than the rest of us the collapse of a whole culture.

The reindeer are the only pillar left of what was once a more diversified civilization. The forest Sami are long gone, forced by the Norwegian government over a century ago to choose between reindeer husbandry or assimilation. The integration of the fishing Sami has taken longer, but the collapse in cod stocks has helped accelerate the move to the towns, a process that it is Strifeldt’s job to manage. Alta is a boom town of 20,000 inhabitants, growing as the countryside all around is drained of people.

Reindeer herding is valued by the rest of Norway and so it has persisted. The Norwegian state sees reindeer as a farmed resource, with quotas and subsidies and strict controls on culls. To the official mind they are a commodity, a useful export from the otherwise unproductive vast plateau of the north, but for the Sami the reindeer’s significance is not only economic and cultural, it is also symbolic. “Reindeer are life. They are everything. Without reindeer, we die,” Strifeldt told me.

And now reindeer herding, a way of life that has survived intact for 10,000 years, is under threat. This time it is not the Norwegian government that poses the greatest danger, but the climate. Warmer winters are deadly for the reindeer in two ways: one is short and sharp, leading to a quick death – ice; the other is slow but sure – too many trees.

Article courtesy of The Gaurdian by Ben Rawlence

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