The Sámi town of Kautokeino, northern Norway. Photo: Alizé Carrère

Pulling back the curtains to my window this morning, overlooking the small arctic town of Kautokeino in northern Norway, the landscape looks charmingly picturesque. Colorful wooden houses are tucked under a thick layer of snow, a white tundra plateau extends off into the horizon. Daylight, now making an appearance in this part of the world for more than 15 hours of the day, already broke several hours ago. The sky sheds the last strands of dawn’s orange and purple hues.

But this year was a bad winter. Of course most wouldn’t be able to tell that by simply peering at the landscape, but as with most of the bigger climate challenges of our age, the problems run deep below what is immediately visible to us.

Among the first to tell you so would be the Sámi of northern Scandinavia, an indigenous group best known for their semi-nomadic reindeer herding livelihood. Although not quite goavvi, an all-encompassing word in the Sámi language that describes the most severe and devastating of winter snow and ice conditions known to reindeer herders, this year’s winter was one of the most difficult in quite some time. According to several herders I spoke with in Kautokeino this past week, warmer than usual temperatures caused a slushy snow, which easily compacts and then forms an impenetrable layer over the reindeer’s winter food source, ground-growing lichen. Foraging for food in such conditions requires that the reindeer expend more energy than they consume, reducing their already-lean winter body masses. The winds this winter were also extreme, making the weather even harsher yet. Many reindeer aren’t able to make it through these conditions, and herd survival rates can plummet.

Reindeer herding is a cornerstone of arctic indigenous life across Scandinavia and Eurasia. Photo: Alizé Carrère

With over 300 words to describe snow*, the Sámi are among the world’s foremost experts on polar landscapes and the ways in which snow, ice, rain, wind and sun interact with one another to create the very ground they walk on. Their traditional knowledge is increasingly important, critical even, as we move forward in an age of uncertain and changing arctic landscapes. As many continue to recognize, modern science alone cannot, and should not, be used as the only source from which climate change measures are understood and prescribed in a world of mixed populations and myriad traditional knowledge banks based upon hundreds of years of intimate interactions with the natural environment.

It was fitting then that as I pulled on my boots that morning, I was heading down the street to the Sámi University College for the international launch event of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, Polar Regions Chapter. Released on Monday, this much-anticipated document made headlines across the world, as it offered an updated report on the state of climate change’s effects since the last report released seven years ago. With 436 contributing authors and a total of 1,729 expert and government reviewers, the report, titledClimate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability from IPCC Working Group II, concluded that “the effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents and across the oceans”. However, despite our ill-preparedness for many of these changes, there do remain possibilities to respond, including the vital role of adaptation and resilience building among the most vulnerable of populations.

From the auditorium of Sámi University College on Monday morning, the focus was specifically on the report’s Polar Regions Chapter, to which Sámi and other indigenous experts contributed. While the findings share dire prospects for many arctic regions and inhabitants over the next several decades, the most remarkable component to this chapter was the inclusion of traditional knowledge as an important resource to both identify and adapt to such risks and changes in the future. One of the major recommendations from the report is the “co-production of more robust solutions that combine science and technology with indigenous knowledge”.

Dr. Nancy Maynard, Lead Author of the Polar Regions Chapter, speaks at the IPCC & International Center for Reindeer Husbandry (ICR) Launch Event of IPCC WG2 AR-5 in Kautokeino. Photo: Alizé Carrère

“There is a major recognition of indigenous knowledge and co-production projects which hasn’t yet been seen”, states Dr. Nancy Maynard, lead author of the Polar Regions Chapter and NASA Senior Research Scientist. Maynard emphasized that the 2014 Polar Regions Chapter is different this year in that the chapter itself is twice as long over all and that the number of articles by or about indigenous peoples tripled. Anders Oskal, co-author on the chapter and Executive Director of the International Center for Reindeer Husbandry in Kautokeino, discussed the dynamic nature of traditional knowledge and how central that knowledge base is for adaptation.

From left to right: Dr. Nancy Maynard (Polar Regions Chapter Lead Author), Dr. Anders Oskal (Polar Regions Chapter Co-Author), Aile Javo (President of Saami Council), and Dr. Mikhail Pogodaev (Executive Chair of Assoc. of World Reindeer Herders). Photo: Alizé Carrère

As a concluding comment, Oskal shared an important message that hit close to home for many people seated in that auditorium (there were several reindeer herders present from other arctic indigenous groups). A Sámi reindeer herder himself, Oskal shared that the most important adaptive strategy for herders of the arctic in the face of climate change will be the protection of grazing land. Because to be adaptive is to be flexible, and to be flexible as a herder means to have space – something that is becoming increasingly limited and fractured with the advancement of natural resource exploitation in the region.

I went home that evening and looked out my window again as night fell over the landscape. The view was even more beautiful, this time illuminated by strings of orange lights against a royal blue evening sky.

I realized that what looked to me like a picture taken from a Christmas storybook ending was actually part of an arctic spread undergoing a series of changes so dramatic that I couldn’t even begin fully understand or recognize them no matter how hard I tried. But there are people out there that can, and as I see it, if we’re not able to get to know something like snow well enough that we can describe it in over 300 different ways, then I think we should be listening to the people who can – because that’s a kind of knowledge that we simply cannot afford to lose.

Photo: Alizé Carrère

The full Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (WGII AR5) is available at and

For more information on the IPCC Launch event in Kautokeino and Press Release, click here

* Information on goavvi and the number of Sámi words used to describe snow were obtained from the PhD research of Dr. Inger Marie Gaup Eira