Home > Articles > The Limits of Climate Change Adaptation in the Arctic: a Case Study of the Sámi

Minttu Liuhto | August 28, 2015


The Sámi, an Arctic indigenous group that live across the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, are on the front lines of facing challenges posed by climate change. Since 1880, the mean global temperature has increased 0.85°C, but the rate of warming in the Arctic has been almost twice the global average.2 The impacts of climate change are already detectable in the Arctic, and the effects are projected to continue over the coming decades.

Climate change poses significant adaptive challenges, but the vulnerability of the Sámi communities is made more acute by limitations placed on them by the various nations that claim ownership of the Sápmi region in which the Sámi live. Modern development and infrastructure, tourism, lack of political and economic power, and especially the lack of appropriate land rights and permits for resource use represent some of the key challenges for the Sámi.


Reindeer Herding

Reindeer herding forms the social, economic, and ecological heart of the Sámi culture, and many of the herding activities, such as calving and migration, are dependent on snow cover. Rain-on-snow events (also known as ‘icy rain’ or gaska-geardini in Sámi) are particularly challenging for reindeer herders. With increasing precipitation and milder winters, the frost days that normally preserve the lichen—the main source of food for the reindeer—are becoming increasingly rare. Without an appropriate frost layer, when the ground becomes wet, either from precipitation or snow melt, and the temperature falls below 0°C, the ground will freeze and form a layer of ice. The lichen underneath such a layer of ice and snow usually becomes inaccessible to the reindeer. If neither migration to a new pasture area nor finding a new source of food is possible, the rain-on-snow events can even be fatal for the reindeer. As an alternative to migration, some herders have started retaining castrated reindeer males within the herd that can break through the heavy ice.


Photo by Paul Hudson / CC-BY

Extensive research on the Sámi has been conducted by the Snowchange Cooperative and EÀLAT collaboration, which draw on local observations recorded by the Sámi themselves. These can help in assessing information on the present adaptive capacity of the Sámi, as well as on how to improve their future capacity. The Sámi spend a great amount of time outdoors, which is why their observations are often precise, and even slight changes in the climate areoften noticed.


Reindeer herding is at the cultural and economic heart of Sámi society. Photo by Mats Andersson / CC-BY


Traditional Knowledge

Traditional knowledge creates a core for the adaptive capacity and cultural identity of the Sámi. Traditional knowledge is often expressed through the Sámi language and not by numbers as is typical of western science. Culturally essential activities such as reindeer herding and fishing are central in passing on traditional knowledge, and the Sámi’s connection to nature is also reflected through songs and stories.Snow occupies a position of cultural significance for Sámi, and is an essential part of traditional Sámi knowledge. The Sámi have a unique way of describing the snow, and how their livelihood, environment and everyday activities interact and depend on it. Changes in snow quality and quantity are especially important in planning and maintaining many of their cultural activities.However, as the Arctic is undergoing drastic climatic changes, the Sámi’s extensive weather reading skills are becoming less reliable, and traditional ways of life more difficult to sustain. One possibility for overcoming the challenges of a changing Arctic climate would be to integrate scientific measurements with traditional knowledge as a way to structure and transform the understanding of the changes occurring. This can help improve our understanding of the snow-dependent herding activities, such as tracking, mobility, and availability of grazing land.


Limits to Adaptation

The Sámi face many challenges due to the physical and ecological changes imposed by climate change, as well as due to economic and political constraints. More frequently, however, these barriers are being further reinforced within our society. For a minority group like the Sámi, decisions about values, knowledge, and livelihoods are often made on their behalf.
Climate change poses a real and an already existing risk in the Arctic, but actions to curb the risk of climate change are being hampered by political arguments, disagreements and slow mitigation procedures. Not only do the Sámi suffer from a greater degree of climate change impacts, but they also hold a much smaller level of capacity, resources, and rights needed to adapt to these changes. Adaptation capability for the Sámi is therefore greatly dependent on other societies’ values, their knowledge base, and what level of risk those societies are willing to accept. Without a close connection between the Sámi and these other societies, the importance of preserving their culture is likely to be disregarded. Also, what people perceive as an acceptable risk varies from one society to another, which is why finding an all-encompassing solution for preserving a cultural identity, and thereby the ability and right to adapt, can be problematic.Arctic communities are heavily resource-dependent and want to hold the rights for their own resources, but due to the governmental restrictions many indigenous people feel they are not given enough resources or leverage to adapt. In addition, future climate change is likely to most impact those who are already vulnerable and lacking in adaptive resources.


Future Adaptation

To improve the adaptive capacity of the Sámi in the future, it is important to address climate change as a phenomenon seen by the Sámi: how it affects their activities and livelihood, as well as their social and economic decisions.By identifying successful current adaptation strategies and implementation methods, it is possible to determine sufficient actions for maintaining and improving the level of adaptation in the future. Flexible use of natural resources, preserving traditional knowledge, improving the level of and access to education, and greater cultural awareness are of great importance in improving the future adaptive capacity of the Sámi. As science progresses and advances, additional information will be useful, although in order to minimize the impact of endogenous limitations, future adaptation strategies should be based on the knowledge of the Sámi.Only recently have the Sámi begun to receive more international assistance. Global Citizens Platform Project, an initiative led by the United Nations and cooperated with Snowchange Cooperative, has been positive in gaining assistance for the Arctic issues. Through this initiative, and by many others, the Sámi communities strive for improved recognition and future ability to adapt.



Finding a new balance between science and traditional knowledge is considered beneficial in increasing the understanding of the Sámi and their ability to adapt. However, if existing limits to adaptation are not surpassed, or global mitigation efforts do not reach the required level, shifts in livelihood activities might be inevitable. Therefore, flexibility in finding additional sources and activities in supporting the daily livelihoods of the Sámi should be encouraged.In order to improve the Sámi’s adaptive capacity and overcome external conditions that limit said adaptive capacity, many institutional and societal changes, as well as reformation of social and public policies, are required. An appropriate platform for equitable rights needs to be created for the Sámi, one that supports their livelihoods, provides social services, diversifies their economic activities, and allows flexibility and supports future adaptation. Therefore, finding long-term, sustainable, and locally successful adaptation strategies is crucial, but also appropriate synergies between climate adaptation and mitigation are required in the future.Governmental participation is crucial in ensuring leadership and economical support, but intrusive actions should be minimized and actions on adaptation should be conducted onthe Sámi’s terms.


Photo by Sami Keinänen / CC-BY-SA / Cropped from originalFull PDF version with references available here.