Who are the Sámi?

"The Sámi are the only indigenous people within the European Union area. Sápmi, the region the Sámi inhabit across four countries, consists of northern parts of Finland, almost half of Sweden and Norway, as well as parts of the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The traditional Sámi livelihoods are fishing, gathering, handicrafts, hunting and reindeer herding, and the modern ways of practicing them. Out of the traditional livelihoods, reindeer herding still functions as one of the cornerstones of the Sámi culture, offering both a language arena as well as material for, among others, clothing, Sámi handicrafts, and food culture. Ever since the development of reindeer herding, reindeer have been an important form of transportation." (Jaakkola et al., 2018; lapland.fi; Markkula, et al., 2019). 



Changes in Climate (Warming)

  • Temperatures in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions have increased on average by 2°C over the last 30 years (13-63 IPCC 6)
  • The thermal growing season is lengthening. Additionally, according to climate change projections, delayed occurrences of the first frost in autumn, and appearances of soil frost and snow cover are expected in the warmer climate (Markkula et al., 2019).
  • Local observations have seen a decrease in the number of days with snow cover, changes in precipitation, and an increase in issues with ice crusts forming due to rain on snow and refreezing. This holds negative connotations for wildlife and reindeer herders (Jaakkola et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019).
  • Melting in arctic snow is releasing contaminants and heavy metal pollution (Jaakkola et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019)
  • Climate change has been steadily increasing the risk of wildfires (Jaakkola et al., 2018)

Changes in Flora & Fauna

  • Treelines are shifting farther north (upwards) (Jaakkola et al., 2018)
  • Climate change has begun threatening lichen ecosystems in higher latitudes (Jaakkola et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019)
  • Climate change has led to an increase in insect harassment and heat stress among reindeer and people (Jaakkola et al., 2018)
  • North-Atlantic Oscillation produces mild winter weather and these weather incidents are increasing (Jaakkola et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019)
  • Northern peatlands store one-third of all carbon on Earth and thus play an important role in global carbon cycling (Markkula et al., 2019).
  • Permafrost thaw can increase the decomposition of peat, leading to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (Markkula et al., 2019).
  • A Shorter period of snow cover and advancing tree line in fell areas create a positive feedback mechanism due to changes in land surface and albedo (Markkula et al., 2019).

Exposure and Vulnerability

The Sámi and their livelihoods are very exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The people and the reindeer (among other fauna) depend on the historic climate to remain unchanged, but climate change has begun changing things, increasing the number of mental and physical health hazards, such as socioeconomic and governance pressures, snow and ice cover change, and an increase in issues in reindeer herding. (Jaakkola et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019; Poppel et al., 2015; IPCC, 5; IPCC, 6).

Flora and Fauna

  • Wildfires caused by drying and other climate effects reduce the amount of pasture land and produce negative health effects for people and animals (Jaakkola et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019).
  • The treeline moving north/upwards results in harder to access foraging materials for animals and pushes them northwards (Jaakkola et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019).
  • Increases in temperature threaten lichen ecosystems and force them to compete with other species of vegetation, having lasting impacts on available foraging materials for reindeer and other animals
  • There has been an increase in rain-on-snow refreezing events. This creates an ice crust that is difficult ( and sometimes impossible) for reindeer and other animals to break through (Eira et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019).
  • Rainy summers increase the difficulty of gathering and moving reindeer to round-up sites and limit hay production for supplementary winter feed (4-56 IPCC 6).
  • Warmer winters (due to Northern-Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)) promote the development of animal parasite outbreaks among reindeer and parasite species are moving northward. The NAO produced mild winter weather also creates difficult pasture conditions for reindeer (Jaakkola et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019).
  • Warm winters also promote the survival of geometrid moths which is one of the main drivers of vegetational change in Sápmi (Jaakkola et al., 2018; Markkula et al., 2019).
  • High snow depth and rain-on-snow events impede reindeer access to ground lichen in winter and delay spring green-up during the critical calving period; both cause malnutrition and negative impacts on reindeer health, mortality, and reproductive success (IPCC 6).


Impacts directly on the Sámi

  • According to local accounts, the risk of accidents has increased among reindeer herders due to changes in the carrying capacity of ice, snow quality, and formation (Jaakkola et al., 2018).
  • These changes also increase the risk of avalanches in the mountain region, which can be lethal (Jaakkola et al., 2018).
  • An increase in precipitation increases erosion and risks of accidents and exposes humans to the heavy metal pollution and other contaminants stored in the melting arctic snow cover (Jaakkola et al., 2018).
  • Lack of control over land use is the biggest and most urgent threat to the adaptive capacity of reindeer herding and the right of Sámi to their culture (13-65 IPCC 6).
  • Fear and anxiety are generated by climate change. With now unpredictable winters and an increasing number of risks to their livelihoods, the Sámi are starting to develop more mental health issues, as well as acute stress caused by socioeconomic and governance pressures (Jaakkola et al., 2018; IPCC 6).
  • Adaptation measures can also impact the Sámi negatively by diminishing pastures and causing issues for reindeer herding and culture (Jaakkola et al., 2018; IPCC 5; IPCC 6).
  • Changes in the surrounding ecosystems will alter peoples' sense of place and erode cultural meanings, stories, memories, and traditional knowledge attached to them (Markkula et al., 2019).
  • Weather-related accidents are predicted to change, i.e. thinning of ice and snow has reduced the carrying capacity and begun leading to an increase in transportation-related accidents and more frequent avalanches (Jaakkola et al., 2018)
  • Traditional Sami reindeer herding strategies are still practiced, but rapidly changing environmental circumstances are forcing herders into uncharted territories where traditional strategies and the transmission of knowledge between generations may be of limited use (8-52 IPCC 6).

Adaptation & Resilience

  • In a pilot project for climate adaptation of reindeer herding run by the Swedish Sami Parliament, reindeer herding management plans were used as a tool to develop strategies for climate adaptation. Four Sami reindeer herding cooperatives participated in the pilot study. They all agreed that climate change means that grazing patterns need to change." (7-20 IPCC 6)
  • Community-led actions and restoration measures are helping to ameliorate climate impacts and provide “safe havens” to affected freshwater species (high confidence). For example, the Skolt Sámi of Finland have introduced adaptation measures to aid the survival of culturally-significant Atlantic salmon stocks in the Näätämö watershed. Atlantic salmon had declined as northern pike, which preys on juvenile salmon, expanded its range in response to warmer water temperatures. Indigenous co-management measures included increasing the catch of pike and documenting important sites (such as lost spawning beds) to ensure ecological restoration encourages further habitat and increased salmon reproduction (4-136 IPCC 6).
  • Research in the European Arctic with the Indigenous Sami Peoples found that the use of GPS technology on reindeer, together with supplementary feeding, offers useful adaptations for some herders (8-82 IPCC 6)



  • Adaptive herding practices have themselves added a significant burden through the increased workload, costs, and stress. Supplementary feeding increases the risk for infectious diseases and implies culturally undesirable herding practices (13-64 IPCC 6).

Issues & Limitations of Current Adaptation Strategies

  • Rotational grazing is no longer possible as all pastures are being used, and changes in climate result in unpredictable weather patterns unknown to earlier generations (8-52 IPCC 6).
  • Technologies (such as the aforementioned GPS) may, over time, reduce the skills, cultural knowledge, and Indigenous adaptations of the Sami, as, for example, reindeer become tamer through supplementary feeding, affecting their range selection. Overall, technology and other adaptations should seek not to erode the Sami culture’s adaptive capacity, particularly because reindeer grazing as a land management practice can play a useful climate change mitigation role too (8-82 IPCC 6).
  • Lack of control over land use is the biggest and most urgent threat to the adaptive capacity of reindeer herding and the right of Sámi to their culture (13-65 IPCC 6).


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About the Author

Lindsey is a senior at St. Lawrence University, originally from New Jersey. She is graduating in May of 2022, majoring in Environmental Studies and Economics, and minoring in Statistics. She is passionate about living sustainably and hopes to eventually build her own self-sufficient home. Post-graduation Lindsey plans on working in ESG & Impact Investing.