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‘The treeline is out of control’: how the climate crisis is turning the Arctic green | Climate crisis
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‘The treeline is out of control’: how the climate crisis is turning the Arctic green | Climate crisis

Downy birch trees in Rondane national park, Norway


Altafjord, a large expanse of blackwater at the Barents Sea’s edge, is surrounded by mountains. Alta is a relatively large town in the Finnmark province, the crown of the horse’s mane that forms Norway’s jagged coastline and Europe’s northern shore. At sea level, the most northernly oriented trees in Europe are moving upslope and consuming the tundra. These people and animals are trying to make sense out of the rapid changes in their environment with a mixture denial, confusion, and panic.

Winter dawn at 70 degrees north lasts almost the whole day. The sun never rises and the day is always on the brink of ending. It is disorienting. I saw very few pedestrians as I was walking from my guesthouse to the city hall. Alta is a town built along American principles – that is to say a town built for a world in which petrol is cheap and cars are taken for granted. It is a landscape filled with shopping malls, gas stations, and spaced-out suburban areas. Normally at this time of year it isn’t safe to be outside for long without wearing animal skins, but on the day of my visit it was only -1C.

Rows of young Scots pines lined the road to the city’s centre, their orangey bark juxtaposed with fresh snow. The pines were surrounded by shorter, more ragged-looking trees, with wizened branches, wizened trunks, and fine twigs that looked like gnarled fingers. Betula pubescensIt is a downy birch. These trees are what brought me to the office Hallgeir Strifeldt (director of planning for Alta), at 9 a.m. on a Monday in winter.

As the planet heats up, the ArcticTreeline is moving towards the pole at a rapid pace, turning the landscape from white to green. The trees used to move forward only a few centimetres each year, but now they are moving north at 40 to 50 metres per year. The European Arctic birch is the leader of all the trees.

The Arctic’s few broadleaved deciduous trees, downy birch (or downy birch), is tougher than most conifers. Its “down” is a soft coating of hairs that acts like a fur coat in the punishing cold. At lower altitudes and latitudes, birch is often seen cooperating with pines. However, above a certain point, birch will go it alone for hundreds upon miles.

It may seem unprepossessing and even ugly with its stumpy branches, pockmarked bark and stumpy bark, but this little tree is a survivor, a pioneer and essential to almost all life in the Arctic. It is used by humans for fuel, food, fuel, medicine, tools, and houses. It also provides shelter for other plants that are needed to create a forest. The conditions for what can grow, survive, and move in the area where it takes root are determined by the downy birch. As the Arctic heats up this range is expanding rapidly.

Alta’s town hall is a modern timber-clad building radiating orange light. The entrance vestibule is two-staged, reminiscent of a submarine airlock. Here you must pass through a hot tub. The receptionist was cheerful when I arrived. Like everyone else in Alta, she was relieved. Finally, there was snow and temperatures dropped to below freezing, even if it was just a little.

“It gets very dark when we don’t have any snow,” said Strifeldt, ensconced in his modern office. Winters have been getting gradually warmer in recent years, but the warmth when I visited was, he said, “extreme”. The entire community was in panic. Reindeer herders posted photos of a snowless tundra to Facebook.

Map of Finnmark

Strifeldt, a city dweller and a man with rimless eyes and a reserved manner, is a calm man. He is also halfSami, an indigenous people from Arctic Europe who share DNA, a common linguistic heritage, and are part of the population of the Bering Strait. This region includes Finland, Russia, Alaska, Labrador, Greenland, and Russia. The Sami used migrate across the land unhindered, but the 80,000 remaining are now citizens of one or more modern nations: Norway Sweden Finland Russia. They are the only European indigenous group that has been recognized by the United Nations.

Reindeer are central to Strifeldt’s identity, as they are for all Sami. His mother’s family were reindeer herders, but when his grandmother died in childbirth on the plateau, his grandfather brought his infant mother to Alta, and left her with a Norwegian family to raise. His grandfather returned to his herds, under the broad skies of the plateau. laavo – a traditional tent much like a tipi – and married again. Hallgeir has a foot at the city and in the laavo. I saw him at a Sami cultural festival later that week wearing a traditional Sami felt coat embroidered with gold, a silk scarf. He also had reindeer-skin trousers, boots, and a silver belt.

Reindeer are a charming animal with their large brown eyes, soft fur, fluffy antlers, soft fur, and huge snow-proof padded hooves. Sami herders know every member of their herd and recognize them individually. Codependency is closer than love, and it is not enough to say that you love someone. The reindeer are in search of grazing, and the people move to accommodate them. Their culture is based on the migratory needs and movements of the herds. This cycle is being disrupted by the weather breakdown. The Sami are one of the first to suffer from climate change, and they have to consider the possibility of a collapse of their entire culture a little earlier than us.

The reindeer are the last remaining pillar of an once more diverse civilisation. The forest Sami are long gone. The Norwegian government forced them to choose between assimilation or reindeer husbandry over a century. The integration of the fishing Sami has taken longer, but the collapse in cod stocks has helped accelerate the move to the towns, a process that it is Strifeldt’s job to manage. Alta, a boom city of 20,000 residents, is growing as the countryside around it is depopulated.

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The rest of Norway values reindeer herding and it has remained so. The Norwegian state views reindeer as a natural resource and has quotas, subsidies and strict controls on cullings. To the official mind they are a commodity, a useful export from the otherwise unproductive vast plateau of the north, but for the Sami the reindeer’s significance is not only economic and cultural, it is also symbolic. “Reindeer are life. They are everything. Without reindeer, we die,” Strifeldt told me.

Now, the survival of reindeer herding as a way for life, which has been around for 10,000 years, is in jeopardy. The climate is the greatest threat, not the Norwegian government. Warmer winters are deadly for the reindeer in two ways: one is short and sharp, leading to a quick death – ice; the other is slow but sure – too many trees.

OOnce upon a time, the first snows would fall in October. They would first fall on the tundra and the plateau above treeline. Then they would fall on the pine and Birch forests of the river valleys, and the coasts. The mercury in a thermometer would fall below freezing within a few hours. It would stay there until April/May when the snow would melt and the rivers would be filled with superoxygenated, clear ice. The average winter temperature was -15C. It would consistently drop below -40C at the minimum during winter. This process eliminated all larvae and kept the Arctic pest-free in summer.

The winter world was dark, cold, and dry. At those temperatures, there was not a drop of moisture. The snowpack was composed of layers of large snow crystals and had the consistency to sand.. At temperatures of -40C to 50C in winter, snow crystals are crucial for both human and animal survival.

This delicate winter ecosystem can collapse if the temperature rises back up to zero or even higher. Even a slight warming of the snow can cause havoc. Moisture starts to appear in the snowpack at -5C or -6C, at which point it loses its sand-like quality, and the snow starts to compact under the reindeer’s hooves, ruining the grazing beneath. It is a disaster if the thermometer goes above the freezing point, which it has been doing more often in recent years. When the temperature drops again, melting snow or rain can freeze, creating a crust of ice on the ground that locks the vegetation away from the browsing reindeer. This happened again in 2017 and 2013. Tens of thousands died of reindeer; some herders lost more that a third of their animals.

In the past 130 years, the temperature has crept above zero three times during winter – two of these times were in the past decade. Projections predict that every winter will see days above zero from now on. The Finnmark plateau is home to thousands of miles of reindeer land, with herds that can reach 20,000 to 30,000 strong. Artificial feeding is not practical and can be costly. Something has to give.

Warmer winters mean more space for reindeer herds to graze. Other reindeer are also competing for the grassy tundra on the plateau, including windfarms and pylons, roads, mines, and mines. The humble downy Birch is the greatest challenger.

Downy birch trees in Rondane national park, Norway
Norway’s Rondane national park is home to downy birch trees.Photograph by Kevin Pronnecke/Getty Images/imageBrokerRF

The office next to Strifeldt’s belongs to Tor Håvard Sund, manager of the Finnmark forest service. Sund is a tall man in a checked shirt and warm smile. While we were talking, he looked at the large map that forms one wall in his office. But he quickly became frustrated.

“When was this map printed?” he asked. We located the 1994 date in small print at its edge. “This is totally useless,” he said. “We need new maps. The treeline is out of control.”

Many factors influence the range of tree species that are habitable. While sunlight, water, and nutrients are necessary, they interact with other variables like wind and temperature. Small variations in altitude and latitude can make a big difference in the vegetation. The downy-birch was able to detect the current warming trend earlier than most scientists. This tree is attracted to warmer weather. It used to live on the plateau’s dips and gullies, away from the icy winds. But, when it feels the warmth, it storms over the top and into the open, moving upslope at a rate of 40m per year. A vast amount of land is being converted from tundra to woodland.

On the surface, it might seem that more trees would be a good thing. The problem is that the greening of the tundra further accelerates the warming process, as the birch improves the soil and warms it with microbial activity, melting the permafrost and releasing methane – a greenhouse gas 85 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its warming effects over a shorter timeframe.

Birch is a pioneer tree. It can sense when the days are getting shorter and the temperatures are rising in spring and will flower with two sets. After pollination, the downy buds that are covered in fine hair open and release many winged seeds to the wind. A mast year is an ideal year for seed dispersal. These days, every year is a mastyear. The growing season used previously to be May-October; it is now April-November.

“Sooner or later, the whole of the plateau will be covered in trees,” said Sund.

It takes 160 years for an old-growth pine and birch forest to form – one that is suitable for reindeer to graze in. Norway’s tree growth is causing havoc. The birch is racing faster than the pines across the tundra.

This is bad news both for reindeer and humans who depend on them. Upright birch forests don’t develop a canopy; they are more like thickets. They trap more snow and form a windbreak for drifts that are too deep for reindeer to navigate or dig through. Their roots heat the ground below, creating ice and melting around them. A hectare of birch will eventually deposit three to four tonnes of leaf litter, which will improve the soil’s organic composition and encourage other plants. Reindeer do nibble the twigs of young birch, “but even if you doubled the number of reindeer in Finnmark county you could not stop the birch”, said Sund.

Every year, more herders ask Sund to trim the birch in order to protect the tundra habitat for reindeer. So the herders who considered themselves part of the natural environment and not distinct from it are losing battle against nature.

Sund was blunt: “The Sami will need to find another lifestyle.”

IIn spring and summer, the Sami bring their reindeer herds to the coast. In spring, it was common to see herds of reindeer swimming across a fjord to reach lush grass on an uninhabited island. Herders and their dogs were then accompanied by rowing boats or kayaks. Today, most herds cross in ferries that are not used for cars.

Summer is when many Sami are scattered with their herds and live in laavo. These traditional tents are made of woven wool and stretched over a pyramid of Birch poles. Children, off school for the holidays, will still often spend weeks at their family’s summer place, rarely venturing home. It was only recently that herding families began to settle predominantly in one location, required by government edicts to live by a road and to send their children to government schools – an attempt to clip the wings of the nomads and keep them where they could be seen, and their animals taxed. Before, herding was a family business. Now, it’s a mostly male activity with women taking care of children in school.

Reindeer fighting in Alta, Norway
Reindeer fighting in Alta, Norway.Photograph by Manuel Romaris/Getty Images

In autumn and winter, though, the herds return to the plateau, to their “winter place”. It is during winter that Sámi socialising takes place, when herds are gathered on the plateau mostly within striking distance – a day’s hard riding by snowmobile – of the centre of Sami cultural life, the town of Kautokeino.

It is Kautokeino that hosts Sámi University of Applied Sciences, the Sami cultural centre, the Beaivváš Sámi Theatre and the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry. For the hub of Europe’s oldest continuous civilisation – a way of life essentially intact for more than 10,000 years – it is surprisingly small. There are only 1,500 permanent inhabitants. Photos from 1950 show Kautokeino as surrounded by the unbroken white snowy tundra without any trees. It is now in the middle of a Birch forest.

I traveled 80 miles south from Alta to Kautokeino by taking the road towards Kautokeino. The road begins in the mixed pine and Birch forests that border River Alta. It climbs quickly through a narrow canyon beneath towering cliffs hundreds upon metres high to reach the plateau above. As I drove, the car was accompanied by shrubby birch along the roadside. Only once, as a mountain rose higher than the level of the open-air river valley, did I see a glimpse at unforested Tundra: smooth, unblemished snow cut with a line of bent, twisted little figures, a battalion made of birch marching up.

Kautokeino was a short distance away. The road reached a ridge and the plateau below opened up in a wide view. The plague of trees was clearly visible from this vantage point. The tundra on the plateau was covered in black streaks as far as the eye could see. It was a beautiful scene, but the fact that the trees shouldn’t be there and the river should be rock-hard – with ice several metres thick, capable of sustaining the weight of a herd of reindeer or an articulated truck – made the beauty of the vision hard to absorb. On this winter day, at this spot in the Arctic Circle, at -1C (14 degrees above average for this time of year), it was hard to avoid the feeling that if there is a tipping point in Earth’s climatic equilibrium, we have already left it far behind.

OOn my first morning in Kautokeino the town was half-asleep due to the darkness and the cold. The woman in my guesthouse complained that it was now -8C but not cold enough. The sky was cloudy and the light was murky soup without the clear dome. The river below the bridge was slowly moving past the dark church that lies on its spit.

But the petrol station was something else. The forecourt was lit with white lights. There were a lot of large pickup trucks parked in a line, all equipped with huge snow tyres by the Arctic Truck Co. The diesel fumes filled the air, filling the crisp, clean air. Behind each truck was a trailer that carried a snowmobile, quad bike, or both. Men dressed in snow suits and fox fur hats climbed down to fill jerrycans full of fuel. They bought energy snacks, then they climbed into massive polluting engines and pushed them into gear. Then they went off into the morning murk. They were the reindeerherders, going to check on their animals. Some might be back tonight, some might be gone for several weeks, and some might not return at all.

Berit Utsi sat in a yellow, one-storey house near Kautokeino with her two-year old son. She looked out at the growing darkness at the lake covered in a thin layer of ice and surrounded by birch tree trees. The secretary of the local reindeer herders’ association, she had agreed to talk to me about the problems caused by the advancing trees.

“It’s not our culture to make a drama,” she said. “Everyone kept a calm exterior but inside we were all very worried.” She was speaking of the incredibly warm winter, which had just been blessed with its first snow. But Utsi’s worries were not over. Her husband, a reindeer rancher, was still there. Even in a good season, this can be a very stressful time for herders: moving herds from autumn to winter and keeping them together over hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres.

A Sami camp in Norway
A Sami camp in Norway. Photograph: Age Fotostock/Alamy

Apart from the previous week, when he had come back for a few days because she’d had an operation, Utsi’s husband had been out on the plateau with the herds for two months straight. The family’s entire income and savings are invested in the herd. One animal is worth over €1,200 (£1,100) at the abbatoir, and every part of the carcass – skin, antlers, hooves and sinews – is used by the Sami for clothes, tools and handicrafts. High stakes encourage risk.

“There have been a lot of accidents lately,” Utsi said. A “point check” – driving a perimeter all around the herd – is the daily routine of a herder. “People have been driving snowmobiles on stones, hitting trees and crashing, ending up in hospital … or maybe the ice is strong enough to carry the reindeer, but the quad bike falls in. Last year two people went through the ice and did not come up,” she said.

Utsi tried to work in a town as a teenager but she missed her reindeer. She grew up with them and spent every summer with her family. As a child, she remembers the tundra without trees. She feels the change as a loss, but like most Sami I met she is pragmatic: “We adapt, we always have.”

But the changing weather and the advance of the trees combined with other pressures on grazing – roads, mines, wind turbines – mean that the economics of reindeer herding are becoming harder and harder. The government is well aware of the declining grazing area and demands that animals be killed every year. Her family needs an additional income.

The birch is almost as essential to traditional Sami life on the tundra as the reindeer – crucial for shelter, insulation, sleds, skis and snow-shoes, and for fuel. Its oils and tannins are used to treat clothes and skins, and make oiled paper. Its bark was used to make canoe skins, and it was fermented in seawater. Utsi’s modern kitchen was still full of the traditional handicrafts of the nomads, made on her summer trips to the mountains. All of her wooden spoons and ladles were made from birch. Cups and bowls were also carved from Birch. Handles of handmade knives were made of antler or bone. On the worktop was a small pot containing shavings from birch bark that could be used to make tisanes as well as medicinal brews.

“But now the trees have become too much,” said Utsi, frowning. She was studying to become an educator.

EEverybody knows someone who gave up their reindeer. Those who keep their reindeer are either the herding aristocracy who are so wealthy in animals that they can weather any storms, or they are true devotees. They could be addicts, mad, or both. I am not sure which epithet best describes Issát, but his experience perfectly captures the cognitive dissonance forced upon us by global heating. We know what is going to happen and what it is likely to happen. It seems that emotionally and practically, we will do whatever we can to avoid the facts.

I met Issát in his nondescript office in the back of a municipal building in Kautokeino at 9pm at the end of a long day. His organisation, Protect Sápmi, is an NGO that provides legal advice to Sami communities challenging the takeover of their land by multinationals and government parastatal organisations, and it is overwhelmed. The warming Arctic has led to massive interest in “opening up” the north not just in Norway but all over the circumpolar world: Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Canada.

Norway is self-sufficient with renewable energy, but there is a lot of demand from Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands. Windfarms at the Arctic Circle are quickly colonising the few remaining mountain ranges that are not covered by trees in Finnmark. According to a, 96% of Finnmark’s land is owned by the Sami people. recent law, and the Norwegian government is supposed to follow the UN principles of “free, prior and informed consent” for the alienation of indigenous land, but it doesn’t.

A Sami reindeer herder in Finnmark, Norway
A Sami reindeer herder in Finnmark, Norway.Photograph by Jonathan Donovan

At the end of our discussion, at around 11pm, when I was ready for bed, Issát announced that he would now begin his “second job”, reindeer herding. He invited me along. His home was up the hill in a terrace house on a small estate that looked a lot like many other European homes. While I waited outside, Issát went in to kiss his wife and his four sleeping children and to put on his reindeer herding clothes: two pairs of thick wool socks, thermals, down trousers, a fleece, a knee-length outer coat, a snowmobile jacket, thick rubber snow boots, mittens and a battered old reindeer-skin hat lined with fox fur. He was out of there in ten minutes. He was transformed without his glasses and suit, and with his neatly cut hair. He had transformed from a quiet, indecisive legal expert to an action-oriented man.

Although it was only -5C outside we had to be ready to go all night if any animal was lost or injured. The herder was trapped in a snowmobile 12 hours prior to my arrival. Issát whistled to his dog, who jumped up on the back of his quad bike next to me – she knew where we were going.

We were taken out of town by the quad, past the scraggy Birch trying to climb up the hill until the clumps became shorter and shorter. We sped past the “60” sign and up on to the plateau. The trees were only about head-high at the top. Issát slowed down and steered the quad to one side of the road. Standing up, he looked into his headlights, which traced the asphalt’s edge, looking for tracks.

He moved slower when the snow was disturbed. His reindeer may have strayed from the road by leaving marks in the snow. The trees make it easier for reindeer roam more freely, which leads to more conflicts over territory, grazing areas, as well as more disputes with their neighbours. Issát must patrol every night to make sure his reindeer are on the right side of the road. These changes are increasing tensions among the Sami community.

We sped along on the bike across untrodden ground looking for tracks. Issát spied one, then many, heading in the wrong direction. He followed the tracks and swerved at high speed. The quad bike briefly swerved off the ground, then landed on a crack in a frozen lake. Issát held his breath as the ice creaked and strained, issuing an occasional report like a gunshot. In the month before, he had been through the Ice twice. The last time he was soaked, he had to winch the bike out of the shallow pool. It took several days to dry in the garage.

“This is the most dangerous job in Norway!” he said with a grin.

After an hour and a half, Issát slid the bike to a stop.

“They should be here.”

“Do you have GPS?” I asked.

There were 10 reindeer in the herd tagged with GPS, but Issát’s phone was out of juice. He prefers to not use it. He turned off the engine, the lights, and listened to the bells that some reindeer wore. The silence was overwhelming. Nothing.

“Oh well,” he said, turning the key and twisting the bike towards home. Issát told me his brother could continue the search in the morning. Issát knows that herding reindeer this way is no longer viable, though he spends all day arguing with the government and mining companies for compensation on the basis that it is. The quad bike whinnied down the hill towards the valley below as the trees along the roadside grew in height. Kautokeino’s howls filled the night air as the quad bike pounded the hills. A wolf had been sighted nearby in recent days – another consequence of the expanding forest. Issát pulled up outside his house shuttered in darkness, and I climbed down, stiff with cold. As he unwrapped his outer clothes and went inside to bed, a light came on in his sister’s house next door. His niece Māret was just waking up.

It was the day of a big meeting, the 50th anniversary of the Norwegian Sámi Association. Māret is a chef and today she would be cooking for the 200 delegates. Māret is famous among her people. She is one of a few Sámi chefs trying to preserve its cuisine and traditional practices around food and the medicinal uses of plants. “I want to make people think through their stomachs!” she said. “I can make a protest through my food. Everything is from nature.”

That day, Sami representatives from all over the north of Norway would gather to discuss the new reindeer law, proposed mining and windfarm developments in Finnmark and Tromsø, and a climate crisis adaptation fund to help the Sami transition to new livelihoods. But Māret sees the problem as much larger than Norway. “Someone has to pay for this life, this lifestyle – and it seems it is the animals and our indigenous way of living. That is the cost.”

This is an edited excerpt from The Treeline: The Last Forest, and the Future of Life on Earth published by Vintage. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop

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