The Snow Meltdown

Pårte glacier
Pårte glacier in Sarek, one of the largest glaciers in the park, has been thinning and retreating

A couple of days ago, I watched James Balog’s documentary Chasing Ice. The film was made to provide visual proof of how climate change is affecting our continuously carbon powered planet, by showing breathtaking images of how our glaciers are disappearing at alarming rates. It reminded me of images I took during my walk through Sarek last summer, where you can see the same phenomenon happening. Traces of glacier retreat are visible through almost all of the parks’ valleys and peaks, and in some areas they have completely disappeared, leaving behind only an abandoned moraine and dried up stream beds. I started thinking about the amount of fuel, energy, wood, meat and water we have used in one winter at one (small) tourist lodge, and ended up feeling pretty chocked about how big the footprint of this small company probably is. Expand that to the tourist industry in Lapland, or even worldwide, and the picture does not look good. We who work outside, who show people nature, need to ask ourselves: how can we make our work more sustainable?

Snow mobile on the river
A snow scooter on the river

Because the lodge where I worked was only a medium-sized family operation, I was quite astonished by the scale of resources we used. At the peak of the seasons, the 112 dogs we were taking care of would eat approximately 90 kilos of meat every day and use at least 100 litres of water. We had a woodshed 2 stories high and about 5m wide, that was refilled during the season and still mostly burned up by the end of it. We could drive up to four or five times a day back and forward to Kiruna and Kittilä and this several times a week, using half a tank or about 40 litres every ride. We would have snow mobile tours going out almost every day, driving around for 30 to 90 km depending on the circumstances. And the lodge would be centrally heated so high that, in combination with the fire inside and the presence of 40 guests, the door would repeatedly be left open to make the building cool down.

Both the Arctic and Antarctic are extremely fragile ecosystems, on which the slightest change can have a huge impact. In the Arctic, weather has already become very unpredictable and changeable. In Tornedalen, it was on average 10 degrees warmer than it ought to be and cloudier than ever. Unstable weather and extraordinary amounts of snow caused the reindeer to struggle for food. The sami people needed to gather them up and feed them extra to sustain their herds. The herders around Luleå got their reindeer stuck out on the archipelago due to the unusually early disappearance of sea ice on the Baltic. And we have been holding our fingers crossed for the snow to hold until the end of the winter, while tourist companies further south saw their season shortened from the usual 4-5 months to approximately 2.

Torne river
Torne river, breaking open much earlier than expected during winter

After a while, it all felt a bit as if we were spoiling the natural beauty we would so proudly show people. We need tourists to have jobs, but we also need to keep the area healthy to have jobs – people come to Lapland exactly to experience this feeling of exploring a purer, untouched kind of nature.

As in most cases, the two parties – organisers and guests alike – can help to get the carbon footprint down. And of course, I do not have a perfect solution about how to make it work better. A good debate is what brings up the root of the problem and what generates solutions that are acceptable for a large amount of people. But every discussion and opinion on the way helps to shape this debate to a higher level.

One of the things that quite surprised me is that people would expect us to drive them exactly when they arrive and when they depart, not understanding that also just the vast distance makes this impossible. They would complain if they had to wait 40 minutes on the airport until the next plane arrived, making us having only one instead of 2 transports. There is an attitude problem, and people might have to come to realise that for economic and environmental reasons catering for everybody’s needs when it comes to transport might become impossible. Considering other means of transport such as trains are also worth noting. Yes, they do consume more time. But if you allow to let the journey become part of the experience, you might start liking a slow and more environmentally friendly way of traveling.

Sarek massiv
A disappeared glacier in the Sarek mountains. Still indicated on the map, there is nothing left of it 

As for us guides, we can have an important role in raising awareness about this environment. We get so many questions and a lot of time to spend with our guests, so we even have the chance of doing it in a free, non lecturing setting. People are generally willing to listen and learn, as long as you explain them things in a pleasant, constructive way. We can minimise the amount of wood we burn on every tour and make sure that neither we or our guest leave any traces. We can limit driving back and forward with the snow mobiles and limit their use in our free time.

Company owners can look out to make sure that their staff uses resources in an efficient way, get up to date with fuel efficiency technologies for cars, snow mobiles and other motorised vehicles, buy local products (especially when it comes to meat) and turn down their central heating. It is the owners who decide if a tour includes a fire or not, on the arrangement of transportation, etc. Having a healthy company philosophy will have its effects on the attitudes of both present staff and guests.

Little efforts combined can make a difference, especially on a bigger scale. In Lapland lie the last true wild, unspoiled areas of Europe, areas that we need to cherish and protect. Think about your own travel style and how it affects the bigger picture.

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