The impact of glacier retreat upon traditional Sami communities in Arctic Sweden: exploring the socio-cultural dimension of an emerging climate change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Plymouth
Department Name: Sch of Geog Earth & Environ Sciences


The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. Unprecedented environmental change and land use pressures place many high-latitude communities at risk of forced migration. Such 'climigration' has already been documented among Alaskan indigenous populations, however with over 4 million people living in the Arctic the consequences of continued change could be significant. Recognition of societal threats and mitigation strategies are essential to future life in the Arctic, preserving cultural heritage and promoting sustainable development. The research proposed herein explores the potential human impact of an emerging source of climate change derived vulnerability and how it might be mitigated.

Sweden has a glacier-covered area of 314km2 and benefits from hosting the longest continuous mass-balance record in the world. While glacier retreat is well documented its regional societal impacts are not, presenting an opportunity for genuine challenge-led interdisciplinary research examining traditional communities under environmental change. An apparently pristine landscape conceals vulnerability to pollution from both point source and atmospheric sources, with multiple contaminants known to be stored within the environment. One example is the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear incident, which yielded radioactive fallout across Sweden. This contaminated large tracts of land, significantly impacting society, including native Sami reindeer husbandry in the Arctic. 78% of reindeer slaughtered in the subsequent season were discarded due to Caesium 137 contamination.

The Sami people are Scandinavia's only native group, famous for their inextricable relationship with reindeer. The animal's domestication by 810 A.D.7 is considered crucial to settlement of the region. Today in Arctic Sweden c.4,700 people herd reindeer, with it remaining a cornerstone of indigenous society. Modern practises focus on commercial meat production, with migratory behaviour preserved to prevent overgrazing. However, legal constraints, land expropriation and changes in seasonal climate now challenge herding methods by fragmenting suitable land.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2096727 Studentship ES/P000630/1 17/09/2018 30/09/2022 Henry Irvine