Snow Monitoring Service Asset to Reindeer Herders

Polar View snow monitoring services were put to good use during the IPY EALÁT project, which studied the capacity of reindeer pastoralism to adapt to climate variability and change.

ealat_1_850_478_90_c1_c_c_(2)Polar View earth observation products played a key role in helping to improve the lives of reindeer herders living in Scandinavia during the International Polar Year (IPY) EALÁT project.

Working in conjunction with the Association of World Reindeer Herders, Sámi University College and the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry, the four-year project (2007-2011) focused on examining the capacity of reindeer pastoralism to adapt to climate variability and change. The project combined reindeer herders’ traditional knowledge with scientific monitoring to determine the ability of reindeer herders in the far north to adapt to climate variability and change.

Helping to preserve traditional lifestyles

Indigenous Arctic peoples from Northern Scandinavia and Russia have practices reindeer husbandry as a way of life for centuries. Following the traditions of their ancestors, reindeer herders migrate their herds seasonally in order to find the best food sources for the reindeer from season to season. In winter, the Sámi reindeer herders in northern Scandinavia move their herds from coastal areas towards the interior snow-covered regions of the land. In Yamalia, Russia, Nenet herders can migrate hundreds of kilometres per year between their summer and winter pastures.

In the overwintering pastures, reindeer usually dig beneath the snow to feed on lichens growing on the ground. When the snow starts to melt in the spring, the herders move their reindeer back towards the coastal areas (which tend to lose snow cover more quickly), which serve as summer pastures for the reindeer. In these coastal regions, the reindeer feast freely on the grasses, shrubs and mushrooms of the Arctic tundra.

However with the snow melt coming earlier and earlier each year, the normal seasonal cycles upon which the herders base their migration patterns have been changing. These changing conditions made the snow maps Polar View’s partner organizations produce in Norway at Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) and in Finland at the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) very useful tools for better understanding how the annual snowmelt has been altered due to climate change, which was one of the key objectives of the EALÁT project. Polar View’s services cover northern Scandinavia and northwest Russia, including the county of Finnmark in Norway and the region of Yamalia in Russia, two regions that were studied under the EALÁT project.

Satellite products for reindeer herding community

Philip Burgess of the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry, who handled education and outreach efforts for the EALÁT project, highlighted the benefits of working with Polar View. He mentioned that snow cover monitoring had “never been done before with reindeer husbandry in mind.”

The Centre coordinated several workshops in the Norwegian country of Finnmark and northwest Russia aimed at informing reindeer herders about the changing nature of the Arctic environment. The workshops also helped document the traditional knowledge tools that exist within reindeer husbandry community to help provide herding societies adaptive strategies for dealing with climate change.

Polar View’s snow maps were used during outreach activities, which Burgess said were “very usedul for generating discussion about snow cover” during the workshops and presentations to reindeer herders and the Arctic Council.

The snow maps that Polar View produces for the regions where reindeer husbandry is practiced are highly practical tools for reindeer herders. Using data from satellite optical and radar images, KSAT and FMI create maps that indicate where snow cover is, and whether this snow cover is wet or dry.

Polar View monitors the region during the melting season, which usually lasts from February until July, which helps herders when they make the spring migration to the coast. The maps make it possible to find areas where snow cover has already disappeared. The fact that the spring melt appears to be even less predictable due to climate change makes snow cover maps all the more useful to the herders.

“Snow monitoring has never been done before with reindeer husbandry in mind. There are a lot of potential areas of cooperation to be explored.”