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POLAR CLIMATE

POLAR CLIMATE
The Detrimental Effects of Climate Change
WORDS & PHOTOS BY EMILY BOE LEE
INTERVIEW BY TOMMY MOORE

For the past 3 years, my work has been almost entirely dedicated to the polar regions, the animals and people who live there, and how their world is changing. In the current climate crisis, the poles are disproportionately affected, weather systems no longer behave the way they used to, and we should be worried.

 

My work started in Iceland — I lived in the Westfjords studying the flora. Here, the fishing community is seeing dynamic shifts due to the warming climate. Fast forward a bit, and I found myself working as a guide and photographer in Antarctica. A huge part of my job was recording calvings: monstrous chunks of ice that separate from glaciers and crash into the sea, sending the surrounding areas into floods, changes in temperature, and disrupting coastal breeding grounds. Calvings are becoming more and more frequent.

 

The most recent place my work has brought me to is northern Norway. In arctic Norway, Sweden, and Finland, the indigenous Sämi people are losing their traditional way of life. Reindeer herding is becoming impossible due to changes in rain and snow composition. During the warm season, the reindeer migrate to the coast where they give birth and try to gain as much strength as possible in anticipation for winter. But with spring coming sooner and sooner, this ancient rhythm is thrown off, and by the time the reindeer arrive at the sea, they find that much of the flora and fauna is unfamiliar. The biggest challenge comes in the winter. The occurrence of “wet snow” is becoming more and more common, causing a hard layer of ice to form over the earth. Reindeer can no longer get to the lichen they rely on as their main winter food source. Reindeer herders are having to put down large numbers of their herd in order to maintain its health. “Last year, not a single new calf survived the winter,” a Finnish Sämi told me in December 2019. Sämi who can no longer make a living reindeer herding have to abandon their traditions and join the modern world. Many anthropologists don’t foresee the traditional Sämi way of life surviving another two generations.

 

The polar regions are defined by the sea. The sea is everything — the climate, the precipitation systems, the life. The sea will determine the survival or extinction of the polar regions. In addition to doing all we can to combat the climate crisis on a community level, governmental policy needs to change. Protocol regarding tourism in Antarctica needs to be re-evaluated, and industrialization of indigenous lands needs to be restricted in order for the Sämi to have any chance at adapting.

 

 

@emilyboelee

emilyboelee.com

Ice prematurely breaking up in the Lemai
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Tommy Moore: Over the past few years, you’ve dedicated much of your work and time to researching flora and fauna in remote, Northern regions. Why is this work so important?

 

Emily Boe Lee: The changing flora and fauna are some of the best indicators with regard to climate change. When species appear in the year, how they behave, how they interact with the environment--these are all ways we can quantify climate change.

 

TM: You started off your career living and conducting research in the Westfjords. How is the warming climate affecting species across Iceland and Antarctica? How is the climate crisis affecting Arctic waters and the species within them? What is the severity of the direct impact on the sea to the polar regions, specifically Iceland and Antarctica?

 

EBL: The warming climate manifests in water at the most basic level. In Iceland, warming waters are forcing fish -- for example, salmon and Arctic char -- to find cooler water elsewhere, beyond the reach of fisherman. This migration means trouble, both for fisherman and for fragile Arctic ecosystems. Ocean temperatures around Iceland have increased nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 20 years.

 

After Iceland, my work brought me to Antarctica, where the warming Southern Sea is wreaking its own havoc. A huge part of my job was recording calvings: monstrous chunks of ice that separate from glaciers and crash into the sea, sending the surrounding areas into floods, changes in temperature, and disrupting coastal breeding grounds. Calvings are becoming more and more frequent. These are just a few examples of how climate change is affecting polar waters and turning age-old balance on its head.

TM: How are these effects felt by the people who live in these regions and whose livelihoods are tied directly to the coasts? How are indigenous communities, like that of the Sämi, feeling the impacts of the climate crisis?

 

EBL: A community I’ve worked closely with is the Sami. Climate change is threatening a keystone of their culture.

The Sami are an indigenous people native to northern Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. A large portion of the Sami are reindeer-herders, maintaining and caring for their herds. The reindeer provide everything -- clothes, meat, income... This traditional way of life is disappearing. Reindeer herding is becoming impossible due to changes in rain and snow composition. During the warm season, the reindeer migrate to the coast where they give birth and try to gain as much strength as possible in anticipation for winter. But with spring coming sooner and sooner, this ancient rhythm is thrown off, and by the time the reindeer arrive at the sea, they find that much of the flora and fauna is unfamiliar. The biggest challenge comes in the winter. The occurrence of “wet snow” is becoming more and more common, causing a hard layer of ice to form over the earth. Reindeer can no longer get to the lichen they rely on as their main winter food source. Reindeer herders are having to put down large numbers of their herd in order to maintain its health. “Last year, not a single new calf survived the winter,” a Finnish Sämi told me in December 2019. 

 

TM: As tourism to Northern regions grows, how does this relate to the climate crisis and the immediate effects these regions are seeing and feeling?

EBL: Tourism to the Northern regions is a complicated subject. On one hand, with more interest, destructive infrastructure like accommodation and transportation must be built. This, of course, is disruptive to the ecosystem and adds to the ever-growing source of greenhouse gases. On the other hand, however, a large portion of these regions’ economy relies on tourism. On a smaller scale, many individual indigenous communities are sustained through income from tourism. It’s sort of a catch-22, and nobody is certain about the best course of action.

 

TM: Is there a disconnect between tourists, locals, and indigenous peoples in the visibility of the climate crisis?

 

EBL: Yes, most definitely. Tourists to these places don’t have to live the daily struggle of battling the effects of climate change like locals, or even more so, like indigenous communities do. Tourists visit Iceland and they don’t see age-old glaciers withering into nothing. They see Instagram-worthy cerulean blue rivers flowing into the sea. This disconnect is what leads to insensitive policy change.

 

TM: In your most recent work in Northern Norway, what exactly were you studying?

Sailing south towards Antarctica on an i
Tourists come to Lofoten Norway to surf.
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EBL: In Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway, I work with the Sami, an indigenous people, on one of their most pressing issues: the effect of climate change on reindeer-herding.

 

TM: Would you say the Indigenous Sämi peoples’ situation is echoed across indigenous and remote communities in the polar regions?

 

EBL: 100 percent. The Sami are not the only indigenous Arctic Peoples. The Inuit, Evenki, Nenets, and all other groups are facing similar threats to their lifestyles due to climate change paired with industrialization. It’s heart-breaking to think that the Arctic Indigenous peoples are the least responsible for our changing climate, yet are impacted the most out of anyone -- by far.

 

TM: What does the Sämi people abandoning their traditional lifestyles look like? What is the long term impact of that?

 

EBL: Sämi who can no longer make a living reindeer herding have to abandon their traditions and join the modern world. A large portion of modern Sami have abandoned the reindeer, sea, and forest and now live lives similar to most people in the western world. Many anthropologists don’t foresee the traditional Sämi way of life surviving another two generations. The loss of tradition leads to the loss of language, which leads to the loss of a culture entirely. 

 

TM: As sea levels and global temperatures rise in tandem, what is the public’s role in curbing both short term and long term effects of the climate crisis? What is the government’s?

 

EBL: In my opinion, the largest responsibility falls on government. While we, as individuals, need to do all we can to combat the climate crisis in our personal lives, the ball is already rolling. In other words, we need to go into repair and reduce-mode instead of prevention-mode. Contributors to the Antarctic Treaty need to strengthen tourism policies. Legislators of countries like Norway, Finland, and Sweden, and Russia need to put laws in place to protect historically Sami land from industrialization.

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