Reindeer in Sweden usually migrate in November. But there's still no snow.
It may be December but almost 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle there’s still not enough snow for reindeer to begin their annual migration.
Sweden’s indigenous Sami people have herded the animals for generations, with the corral usually happening over a two-week period in November.
But this year the tradition has been postponed because temperatures keep fluctuating above and below the freezing mark.
“Something is really wrong with nature,” said Niila Inga, 37, who lives in Sweden’s northernmost town of Kiruna. “I can't ask my father what to do now because he hasn’t seen this; it hasn’t happened during his lifetime.”
The past four years have been the warmest on record globally, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
Reindeer husbandry is carried out in countries throughout the Arctic including Norway, Russia and China. A 2009 report on the future of the practice says that there are 3,000 reindeer herders in Sweden alone, and a total of nearly 100,000 globally.
It's a family business. Inga said he took the lead from his father when he turned 18 and works alongside 17 other full-time herders in the community that includes his cousins and nephew.
Every September, reindeer are gathered and killed for meat. It’s the main source of income for the herders.A Sami man labels a reindeer calf near the village of Dikanaess, Sweden, in 2016.Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP/Getty Images file
After the slaughter, the remaining reindeer are left to graze in the wild until it’s time for the winter migration eastward to better grazing territory. For Inga, that's a trek of more than 62 miles.
Herders follow the animals on snowmobile, spending nights in cabins along the route. Children get the time off school to take part in the process.
“Everything is connected to the reindeer and the reindeer herding,” Inga said. “It’s something you’re born and raised in.”
But Inga, who is also the chairman of the Swedish Sami Association, believes "something is shifting."
The snow is vital to every aspect of reindeer husbandry so this winter's erratic freeze-thaw cycle is a problem.
Research suggests the effects of global warming are amplified at the poles, with average air temperatures rising faster than elsewhere on the planet. This results in the rapid loss of ice, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. This year's winter freeze is being forecast to come late for the Scandanavian region and ice formation will be below-average.
The herders need the snow for their own travels through the wild terrain. Snow also makes it easier for the Sami to track reindeer and predators.
Most importantly, the snow impacts vegetation. A delayed winter could be viewed as a good thing, allowing the reindeer more time to graze by the mountains, Inga said. But it could also lead to the reindeer trampling the plants and prompt overgrazing.
Research is backing up the changes the Sami are witnessing. Gunhild Rosqvist, a geography professor at Stockholm University, is part of a team studying the changing Arctic landscape, including the accelerating loss of glacier ice in the Scandinavian mountains.
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