Fatal Thaw: The Sámi Fight to Preserve an Ancient Culture as the Arctic Warms

The indigenous Scandinavian people are taking matters into their own hands to save the salmon and reindeer integral to their traditions.
Nov 30, 2015· 16 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

SEVETTIJÄRVI, Finland—We enter the taiga forest from a trailhead at the end of a dirt road, not far from a shed where a fresh reindeer hide had been nailed up to dry. After an easy 20-minute walk along a path of fallen pine needles and spongy moss, the trees fall away before a wide channel of big black rocks, which extended for about a quarter-mile in either direction between two small ponds.

We are looking at the Vainosjoki River, a tributary of the 62-mile Näätämö River. But the only sign of the river is the sound of water flowing through a deep cleft in the middle of the otherwise dry channel.

Pauliina Feodoroff steps with sure feet across the uneven surfaces of the rocks. An angular, dark-haired woman in her late 30s, Feodoroff is a Helsinki-based filmmaker and playwright and a native daughter of the Skolt Sámi village of Keväjärvi, one of the three small towns in Arctic Finland that most Skolt Sámi call home.

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Feodoroff spent her childhood here, however—on the Näätämö River and in the nearby Skolt Sámi village of Sevettijärvi.

For this hike Feodoroff had donned a bulky black hooded parka, black snow pants, and sturdy boots. But the garb is almost too heavy for the day’s unseasonably warm temperature—which despite the mid-October date and our location nearly 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, is only a few degrees below freezing.

Feodoroff hops over the Vainosjoki. Then she crouches down and lowers the GoPro camera she holds in one hand to the water.

Pauliina Feodoroff. (Photo: Gleb Raygorodetsky)

Using the smartphone in her other hand to direct the camera’s view, Feodoroff points the lens at the tendrils of blue-green algae swaying beneath the river’s surface and begins to record—adding to her documentation of how climate change has transformed the tribe’s corner of the Arctic.

A minority within a minority, the Skolt Sámi make up about 700 of Finland’s 9,000 or so Sámi, an indigenous people whose historic territory, called Sápmi, has stretched across the present-day Scandinavian and western Russian Arctic for thousands of years.

The Skolt Sámi have maintained their distinct culture and deeply spiritual relationship with nature amid centuries of Eurasian modernization, political and economic revolutions, social oppression, and war. “Long after great cities had spread across Germany and France,” writes Laurence Smith, a University of California, Los Angeles, geographer, in his book The New North, “the Sámi were still living in tents, migrating with their reindeer, living off the land by fishing, trapping, and hunting.” In the 21st century, these struggles are being intensified by climate change, which is transforming the Arctic more rapidly than any other region on Earth.

Climate change is driving up temperatures in the Arctic and sub-Arctic at twice the rate of lower latitudes, and Finland is no exception. Finnish scientists have documented an increase in average winter temperatures by more than 3.6 degrees compared with the late 1700s. Since the 1850s, mean temperatures in Finland have risen by more than 0.25 degrees Fahrenheit a decade, and they are still rising.

(Map: TakePart)

Each increment of warming has compounded the threats to the Skolt Sámi’s traditional livelihoods, such as fishing and reindeer herding. Climate change also endangers more contemporary occupations, such as catering to the 1 million eco-tourists who come to the Finnish Arctic each winter to tour on skis and snowmobiles across the region’s increasingly unpredictable ice and snow, and who return in the summer and fall to fish and hike.

At the same time, the Skolt Sámi’s deep knowledge of their environment is helping them figure out how to adapt to a melting Arctic.

That drive is what has brought us to the Vainosjoki River with Feodoroff. She and other members of her tribe are determined to reverse decades of damage to the Näätämö basin and its salmon stocks and in the process ensure that the Skolt Sámi can adapt to the great Arctic thaw.

The algae are unnatural in this river, Feodoroff says as she films, an indication that increased erosion in the river basin is releasing more nutrients into the water. Warming water temperatures, meanwhile, are making it easier for the algae to thrive, competing with the river’s fish for oxygen and light.

The positions of the rocks are not natural either but the remains of a Finnish government project dating back about 50 years. The idea had been to create a river route for small boats on the Vainosjoki. But the project only succeeded in destroying important streambed habitat for spawning Atlantic salmon, undercutting the potential for the fish and lake trout to adapt to climate change.

The Näätämö River. (Photo: Gleb Raygorodetsky)

Vladimir Feodoroff, Pauliina’s 65-year-old father, grew up fishing salmon and trout in the Näätämö basin and herding reindeer across its taiga forests and ice-covered lakes. “My grandfather knew the soul of the salmon and passed that on to me,” he says.

"That’s where the spark came from for the salmon work” that he, his daughter, and other Skolt Sámi are undertaking now, he says.

“In the 1960s we had periods of quite heavy weather”—rainfall and snowfall—“but they would be predictable,” he says. “The winters were normal all the way until the 1970s, [with] heavy frosts, good snow cover,” allowing the Skolt Sámi to plan their harvests of traditional foods, including the annual summer salmon fishery.

In the 1980s, winter temperatures began to rise; the amount and intensity of snowfall became harder to predict. Years with unusually heavy snows meant higher river levels during spring and summer melts, which made it harder for salmon to swim upstream to spawn.

In the past few years, both Feodoroffs have observed a new turn in the climate: the failure of summer rainfall. “These new dry summers are a totally new phenomenon that has not happened before,” Vladimir Feodoroff says. This leads to unusually low river water levels. That water can heat up quickly during hot summer weather, harming salmon and other cool-water species.

As far back as at least 2004, climate researchers have been forecasting warmer weather and more precipitation in Finland owing to climate disruption, and the country has seen several years of record-breaking precipitation in some regions. A 2014 study found, however, that most of the increase is coming as more severe rain and snowfall during winter months, a trend that has been observed in other parts of the Arctic as well.

In years when the low water persists into the winter freeze, Vladimir Feodoroff says, the ice forms all the way to the bottom of the lake, destroying the fish roe in some spots.

“It’s hard to assess whether these sudden changes constitute a permanent threat or something that will destabilize the river,” he says.

Vladimir Feodoroff. (Photo: Emily Gertz)

“The salmon come back to the river from the ocean in three-year cycles,” he says. Thus, “if one generation of fish one year is being affected, the full extent of the damage may not reveal itself until 2017 or 2018, when the salmon that hatched in 2014 and 2015 return to spawn.”

Poor and changing river conditions are not the only challenge facing the Atlantic salmon of the Näätämö basin. Unlike their North American cousins, these adult salmon, called kelt, don’t die after returning upriver to spawn. They migrate up to four times between the river and the Barents Sea, which, along with the rest of the Arctic Ocean, is warming because of climate change.

“Some research indicates that a slight warming in sea temperatures has increased kelt survival, but they don’t know what will happen if the waters continue to warm,” says Eero Niemelä, a Finnish biologist who has studied North Atlantic salmon for decades.

As with other Arctic indigenous peoples, Skolt Sámi view salmon as both a food source and a cultural touchstone. With climate change, says Vladimir Feodoroff, “it is getting harder for the salmon to survive, which means it constitutes a major threat to us.”

To try and manage this threat, the Feodoroffs in 2007 contacted a Finnish nonprofit called Snowchange Cooperative. Founded in 2000 by geographer Tero Mustonen, Snowchange provides scientific and technical support to indigenous and local Arctic communities trying to adapt to climate change, preserve traditional knowledge, and protect their land rights.

Restoring the Vainosjoki River is the first step to fortifying the larger Näätämö River basin against global warming, Mustonen says. “In order to address climate change, one of the mechanisms to do that is to increase the number of spawning sites and natural habitat for the Atlantic salmon,” he says. “What we have done here now is about two years of mapping, [getting an] analytical view on the aquatic plants, preparation on how we will restore this.”

“But there will be at least 10 other sites like this through the catchment area,” which is roughly 1,964 square miles, over the next decade, he adds.

Returning them all to ecological health will cost at least $10.8 million, Mustonen estimates.

Some of the money raised has been used to pay stipends to Skolt Sámi fishers who, led by the elder Feodoroff, track conditions in the Näätämö basin, set limits on the Skolt Sámi salmon fishery, and harvest predator fish that feed on young salmon. “This is being controlled by the hired Skolt Sámi experts, who are the traditional knowledge holders, who survey and monitor and plan through the season how things are done,” Mustonen says.

Pauliina Feodoroff fishing for Arctic char after the last snow in the spring of 2015. (Photo: Gleb Raygorodetsky)

Finnish authorities often frustrate the project’s goals for managing and improving the salmon fishery, Vladimir Feodoroff says, because they do not consult with the Skolt Sámi on how many fishing permits to issue to tourists each year. When too many visitors from beyond the region show up to fish salmon, it forces the Skolt Sámi to cut back their own harvest for the sake of conservation.

To bolster the Sámi’s call for more control over how Arctic resources are used, Snowchange Cooperative spent years compiling written information, oral histories, and photographs as well as documenting spiritual sites, food-gathering areas, the impacts of climate change, and other land uses by Sámi tribes. The resulting 334-page Eastern Sámi Atlas, published in 2011, has become “a baseline for conversation” with government agencies, mining companies, and other entities that are challenging Sámi communities for a bigger piece of the warming Arctic, Mustonen says.

“The idea of mapping in this case was to make invisible history visible,” he says, because of the four Arctic nations—Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia—that control the Sámi’s historic territory, only Norway formally recognizes the tribes' indigenous land rights.

Enabling Arctic indigenous peoples to conserve their traditional ways of life is crucial both for them and the rest of the world, Mustonen says. “The world is running out of wild places,” he says. Of those that remain, “most of the time they are indigenous homelands” inhabited by people whose cultures “provide alternative narratives of time, space, and place.”

These different ways of seeing and being in the world are a form of human biological diversity that is just as vulnerable as rainforests, mangroves, and coral reefs to pollution, exploitation, and climate change, Mustonen argues—and just as vital as those ecological hot spots to human survival.

The Sámi “are the custodians of the last wilderness areas in Europe, which are at the same time carbon sinks and biodiversity havens,” he adds. “It’s a global crime when they are destroyed. The best move in terms of climate security is to leave them alone.”


When Mustonen visits Sevettijärvi to check in on the restoration work about once every six weeks, he stays at Porotila Toini Sanila, a nearby hotel and reindeer ranch named for owner Toini Sanila.

Porotila Toini Sanila is comfortably rustic, made up of several sparely furnished cabins that, along with tidy sheds and other outbuildings, are scattered around a central building that houses the reception desk, a guest lounge, a sauna, shared bathrooms, and a spacious dining hall. It’s all tucked into the taiga not far from the 971 highway, which runs 22 miles northeast to the Norway border and another 50 miles south toward the heart of Sámi Finland.

Walking to dinner in the early dark of an Arctic fall evening, it’s not unusual to spot several reindeer from the local herding cooperative, of which Sanila is a member, ambling out of the forest and across the open spaces between the cabins as they browse the ground for lichen.

Ethnically, Sanila is a Finn. She joined the Skolt Sámi when she came to Sevettijärvi several decades ago as the young wife of a reindeer herder. Today she is a prominent regional businesswoman, a former principal of the village school, and a Skolt Sámi elder who—like Vladimir Feodoroff—has thrown her support behind confronting and adapting to the latest environmental threats, including global warming.

The climate changes that affect Sanila most directly come down to three words: not enough snow.

When she was a young woman, recalls Sanila, who is now in her 60s, each winter regularly brought three feet of snow. Now snowfall from year to year is “so varied that it can be essentially anything—some winters where you have very little snow and some years where there’s a huge snowfall,” she says.

A Sámi reindeer herd. (Photo: Gleb Raygorodetsky)

The autumn freeze is taking longer to settle in, she adds, making movement across the region’s many lakes, as well as traditional ice fishing, much more dangerous than it was in her youth. “When I came here and in the early years, we knew that the frosts would stay. Now, within a week it’s a seesaw, from harsh frosts into very warm and then back to cold again. Everything jumps, even daily, up and down,” she says.

This unpredictability has taken a toll on her hotel’s most lucrative clientele: large groups of tourists from Finland, Russia, and elsewhere who come to snowmobile in the forests and over the lakes. These “snow safaris” used to run until mid-April. But now that snow cover beyond late March has become uncertain, Sanila’s income can drop by up to a third during the spring, compared with past decades.

The data back up Sanila’s observations and experience. Since 2000, the Finnish Meteorological Institute has tracked a succession of record-breaking warm winters, with snow cover well below average and “thermal spring” beginning earlier.

According to data from the Global Snow Laboratory at Rutgers University, April snow cover extent in Eurasia decreased by an average of 140,000 square miles a decade between 1967 and 2015. The new unpredictability is an even greater threat to traditional reindeer herding because “when a warm spell comes, and maybe rain, followed by frosts,” Sanila says, an ice layer forms on the lichen pastures. Lichen is the Arctic reindeer’s year-round natural fodder. The animals can dig through snow to get at the lichen, but not through ice.

When the pastures ice over, therefore, Sámi herders must purchase fodder for the reindeer or risk the animals starving to death. “We essentially have to go out with snow machines [with] food pellets” to feed the reindeer, Sanila says, noting that in a good year she harvests more than 1,000 pounds of meat from her herd. The increased work hours, fuel use, and pellets all translate to higher costs, says Sanila, who believes that the artificial feed diminishes the flavor and quality of the meat.

Food pellets and hay left on the ice also wash into the rivers and lakes in spring, which can harm Atlantic salmon and other fish.

Longer autumns are delaying the reindeer migration to winter pastures because most of the animals’ routes traverse lakes that are no longer freezing on time. Less grazing time in winter means “the reindeer are not so fat when they are butchered,” says Sanila, and “the money that we can get from the meat is less.”

The statistics bear out Sanila’s observations that smaller animal size, pasture problems, and increased costs are taking a toll on how much Finnish herders earn from reindeer meat. The average net income from reindeer husbandry in the 2011–12 herding year was just under $7,000 per family, according to a report from the research group Natural Resources Institute Finland. That was down 20 percent from the previous year.

In May, the institute projected an average net income of $4,800 per family for the 2012–13 herding year despite slight increases in the prices of reindeer meat. Costs rose 14 percent. “The largest increase was feeding expenses,” the report stated, with snowmobile operating costs also contributing to the hike. The wage for herders worked out to the equivalent of $4.79 per hour for 1,300 hours of work.

An Arctic lake not frozen in late October, a time of year when most lakes are iced over. (Photo: Gleb Raygorodetsky)

Reindeer herders from other parts of Sápmi have reported similar new challenges. According to a 2012 United Nations report, the nomadic Nenets of the Russian Arctic have “in recent decades observed the symptoms attributed by scientists to a warming climate, such as later freeze up in autumn, earlier thaw in spring, and warmer winters characterized by more frequent and intense rain-on-snow events. The latter can result in ice encrusted pastures and significant losses (up to 25 percent) of herds.”

Sanila is clearly concerned about the prospects for her business in the warmer years ahead and foresees a need to find new sources of revenue. But she is facing the future optimistically, she says, because the Skolt Sámi have a history of pulling themselves together to survive existential threats.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Skolt Sámi negotiated treaties with successive Russian czars. These agreements—which the Sámi collectively call the Gramota—guaranteed the tribe's access to traditional hunting, fishing, and herding grounds.

In October, UNESCO affirmed that the treaties collected in the Gramota are the first written political recognition of indigenous land rights in human history.

During the 20th century, however, Skolt Sámi culture was badly bruised by forced relocations from the Soviet Union to Finland, as well as Finnish government assimilation policies that removed Sámi children to boarding schools, suppressed native Sámi languages, and dammed rivers in Sámi territories for hydropower.

Tiina Sanila-Aikio, Toini’s daughter and the president of Finland’s Sámi Parliament, has grappled for years with the Finnish government over recognition of Sámi identity and indigenous land rights and worked to rejuvenate the Skolt Sámi language. Now, with none of that work complete, climate change is beginning to demand her attention as well.

Tiina Sanila-Aikio in traditional Sámi garb standing in front of the Gramota. (Photo: Gleb Raygorodetsky)

“We have put very much resources [into defining] who is a Sámi,” she says. “But at the same time, who cares who is Sámi if you cannot practice the traditional livelihoods because of the nature catastrophe? In Finland, we might already be too late.”

But Sanila-Aikio is skeptical about global action to slow climate change, including the international climate negotiations under way in Paris this week. “Arctic indigenous peoples have not been making this problem, but we are the people who suffer the most,” she says. “Our voice is not heard,” even though “we need clean waters and lands to continue with our traditional livelihoods.”

As Sanila sees it, the strong bond between the Skolt Sámi and the Arctic, forged over millennia of living on and from the land, will help them survive whatever comes next.

“In the context of climate change,” she says, “our main assets are clean nature and silence”—the wild silence that attract tourists to Sápmi from more heavily urbanized areas farther south.

But if the Sámi must adapt their lives, language, and traditional livelihoods to climate change, she believes, other people must change their ways as well. “What we do here in Finland—we can’t influence much. We are a small place and a small country,” Sanila says. “All countries in the world should come to an understanding on severe limitations to pollution.”


Our last visit before departing the village on Sunday is with Skolt Sámi elder Satu Moshnikoff. She has laid out a wonderful spread of coffee and sweets. The centerpiece is a layered dessert composed of yellow cake and whipped cream, studded with tart golden-yellow Arctic cloudberries that have been gathered nearby.

Moshnikoff has devoted most of her adult life to saving the Skolt Sámi language. In the 1970s, with her late husband Jouni, she created the first written orthography for the language and wrote the first ABC book for children.

While she has noticed climate change–related impacts on the region’s salmon and reindeer, Moshnikoff, now in her mid-70s, mostly bears witness to the thawing of the Arctic in more personal terms. “My daughters have birthdays at autumn, around this time,” she says. “When they were girls, they would celebrate with skating parties on the lakes. But there is no ice on the lakes in mid-October anymore.”

“The weather is quite unstable,” she says, making it much harder to plan and equip trips into the forest to gather berries and plants to dye yarns for knitting—a traditional Sámi handicraft.

Moshnikoff believes that as climate change creates new problems for those Skolt Sámi still pursuing traditional livelihoods, using the native tongue will be an essential tool for confronting and solving them. The dialect is “a language which evolved with nature and in nature,” she says. “A word in Skolt has to be explained with a sentence in Finnish, especially regarding nature and phenomena in nature,” from the condition of a reindeer to the quality of snow and ice.

Only by using their native language, she believes, can Skolt Sámi remain deeply connected to nature as they adapt in coming years to climate change’s new normal in the Arctic.

The temperature has dropped several degrees below freezing in Sevettijärvi during most of our visit—mid-October’s old normal.

Walking the shoreline of Lake Sevettijärvi one afternoon, we paused to listen to a high-pitched crackling noise caused by ice forming rapidly on the water’s surface. “That’s one of the best sounds you can hear in the Arctic: the ice singing to the lake,” Mustonen says.

But today, Sunday, the mercury has begun to rise, and Mustonen is glum.

Climate change has been linked to Lake Sevettijärvi’s eroding shoreline. (Photo: Gleb Raygorodetsky)

“Historically, this is around the time it should be frozen over,” he says as we walk along a small peninsula jutting into the lake. “Now there will be a warm spell, and all this will go.”

In recent years some force has begun eroding the ground out from under the trees along this stretch of Lake Sevettijärvi’s shoreline. The trunks tilt at crazy angles toward the silent water, in varying stages of losing their grip on the land.

Initially some thought the erosion was because of unusually low water levels in the lake, Mustonen says. But Snowchange’s scientific assessment, backed up by the multi-decade observations of Skolt Sámi residents, has concluded that global warming is the cause: A new wind pattern has taken hold over the lake, owing to temperature and pressure changes in the atmosphere above the Arctic. “From the first of May the wind locks into the north-northeast and blows that way until August,” Mustonen says.

The village’s sole school and its tribal office are on this cape, which Mustonen describes as “one of the core areas of Skolt Sámi territory.” So the tribe has instructed Snowchange to expand the Näätämö River basin restoration project to include this site.

The development cheers Mustonen. “What’s amazing is that the Sámi are directing the work. What’s important is the Sámi feel these are the sites and projects we should focus on,” he says. “It becomes a symbol of resistance and renewal in modern times.”