Nearly 300 hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, the town of Akkarfjord is a cluster of colorful houses hugging the steep sides of the island called Sørøya. About 80 people call the town home, mostly employed as fishermen or at the local fish factory. The village is even named for fish: akkar, or cuttlefish, were the main catch until its populations mysteriously disappeared. About 50 kilometers away in the North Barents Sea gleams a behemoth called Goliat, a brand-new oil rig named for a giant that was ultimately destroyed by the little guy. It pumps liquid wealth from the deep.
Finnmark, or Samiland, is Norway's Northernmost territory, a place so remote few visitors, including other Norwegians, venture there. The coastal people operate on the industries of fishing and energy extraction. Inland, the communities are primarily Sami, an indigenous group with rich roots across Northern Scandinavia. Many living in inland towns like Kautokeino and Karasjok maintain a lifestyle and economy centered around reindeer herding, and speak a mix of Norwegian, English, and regional Sami. There, lives are still rooted in the traditions of the ancestors, blended with a rural European modernity. The herders follow their animals’ migrations by snowmobile. The families drive to church on Sundays in SUVs, dressed in handmade, ornate Sami clothing.
On Christmas Eve 1969, oil was discovered in Norway. The nation's parliament crafted "Ten Oil Commandments" in 1971, which included the promise that oil and the wealth it brought belonged to the Norwegian people. Since the discovery, Norway has transformed itself into a social welfare state. Wealth from oil and minerals lead to increased national and individual security through subsidized health care, insurance, education, grants, and pensions. Like all humans, Norwegians tend to guard that which protects and supports them. And here, the great protector is oil.
But the great provider is still the land and sea, both of which are changing. The winters are different now: the snow arrives later and more sparingly. The reindeer herders say the winter has such odd patterns that their reindeer can die from starvation. Fishermen have noticed that the sea is warmer and more acidic. The hunters say they no longer know where to find animals to hunt and eat. Most people in town recall snows of past winters that reached to second-story windows, but in recent years it rarely reaches past the tops of winter boots. In first-world countries like Norway or the US, wealth, whether from oil or another source, may allow the comforts of apathy or skepticism to insulate from the immediate effects of climate change.
“Everything has changed. Climate is also part of this change. Ice and water have become less safe to travel. That the weather conditions are getting more and more unstable in the winter. Suddenly it can be mild and the snow gets wet. Then, suddenly, it can be cold and freeze this wet snow to ice. So that the entire landscape is transformed into ice-like snow, which means that the reindeer is unable to dig down to the food under the snow.”
– Ingor Ante Mahtte, Sami reindeer herder
“When you follow the reindeer from birth, it’s just the way you live. When you are a reindeer herder you are often alone with your own company. You see amazing things. The Aurora Borealis can be so strong and bright, you can see and count the herds by its light. You can see the mountains. It’s all colors: red, green, yellow, pink.”
– Niillas Mihkkal Gaup
“There are more than 300 words in the Sami language to describe the snow and in the Norway language is maybe five. So we describe the snow. If someone asks me how is the conditions for the reindeers, I can describe the snow with the right word: if it’s packed, how the bottom layer is, how is the top layer is. Last year, the warm period came in the middle of March and it warmed up the snow and then got colder again. And then everything was ice, for six weeks. And the reindeer can’t eat through the ice. We lost a lot of reindeer, they died. These days we start giving them grass and food pellets. And I see that every year we have to give them more and more food in wintertime. That’s the only way to survive when it’s icy.”
– Niillas Mihkkal Gaup, Sami reindeer herder
“This community, Akkarfjord, is very dependent on fish. If the fish goes away, then that will be a problem. It has happened before, but if that was due to climate or other conditions, we don’t know. But we have seen with the haddock this year, that came really late and at the same time, the temperature in the ocean was several degrees higher.”
– Ellen Krasvik
“We need the ocean to stay in balance. This ecosystem needs to stay in balance. We rely on capelin (lodde in Norwegian) and krill and this small crayfish for food for the larger fish that we catch. If the ocean gets more acidic, these small, small fish will die because their habitat and bodies can not cope with acidic water. And if they die, then the other, bigger fish can not survive. The sea has become more acidic here in Norway, you see it all over the world. The small stuff is very important.”
– Knut Olsen, fisherman
“I was born on a boat in the ocean. My mother used to clean snow from the roads for her work. One day, she was shoveling snow and she went into labor. She wasn’t expecting me before January, I was born two months early. They called for a doctor for help, and sent for the medical boat. I was born on that boat, in the sea near a little island. My mother was very strong. When she was old, died on the mountain, on a day when they were marking reindeer at the cabin. It was her heart. She got sick in the night, in the hut on the mountain. Now, it’s not like in the old times. Back then, they prayed to nature or those who have passed away, and they used drums. Some have started using them again to call for help. We believe every person has helpers to guide in your life. Sometimes I feel their forces around me. And sometimes I have dream of what is to come in the future.”
– Berit Sara
“I’ve lived on this island, Sørøya, all my life. When we were kids we would get snow in October, November. Now, it never arrives before before January, maybe. There’s less snow than when we were small. Before we grew up, there was much more snow than now. When we used to go ice fishing in March it was normal to have thicker and harder ice. Now, the ice is very soft and slushy. It will be raining and then get colder again. It’s changing very much, it’s not like it was, when we could get snow and it stay. There is more rain in the winter time here.”
– Paul Nilson
“When oil was discovered in the 60’s and the 70’s, it was decided that the oil in the ground is the property of the Norwegian people and it’s not for sale. The sale of oil and gas creates large revenues from the oil markets, and of the profits, 78% is then taken by the state in the form of an specially designed petroleum tax. It is used not to enrich a few people but for all: to invest in schools, in roads and in education, in healthcare, in different welfare benefits and a social security system. The Norwegian people know this. Over the last three decades it’s been an absolutely amazing journey where you can see how the county has developed. In the 1960’s and 70’s mothers were granted 12 weeks payed maternity leave. Today it’s up to 59 weeks, split between the mother and the father. As a child, my mother was making my clothes. I remember the first time going to a cafe. I was probably 14 or 15 years old when the first cafe in my city opened. Our lives have changed because of oil. I think the majority of the Norwegian people probably would say that climate change is related to human activity. You know, if you do a survey or a poll you would probably find that. But then if you asked the same people, ‘Okay, are you willing to take the consequence of that and reduce your standard of living, or possibly even give up your job?,’ people would say ‘No.’”
– Andreas Wulff, Director of External Communications at ENI Norge oil company
“Sami people and other indigenous people are very dependent on the environment, maybe in more ways than other people living in the same area because we are using it more as a basis for our culture and our future. Sami people and the Sami Parliament are quite active in the international process on climate change. It’s important to the Sami Parliament to stress how climate change affects indigenous people, more than it affects other people. Climate change has big impacts when it comes to the nature we are living in and depending on.”
– Hege Fjellheim- Deputy Director,
Department of Rights and International Issues at the Sami Parliament
“Everything is in balance when you go out hunting. A few years ago I started realizing that things weren’t as they were before. The animals didn’t stay in the same areas. I’ve been hunting since I was a small child and I’ve always found animals in the same places. Now suddenly, two, three, four years ago it started changing. I felt I needed to learn everything again. We were used to having really cold winters with a lot of snow. Then, it started being so hot in the summer that our dogs wouldn’t smell the animals because everything dried up. You went hunting and missed the shots. It’s a bit difficult to say what changed, but something did.”
– Jørn Mathisen
“Here, you become close to nature because everything depends on the weather. The day-to-day struggles and practical things can feel big because it’s such a harsh climate. Living here is a challenge, but a challenge you want to master. If you want to have an easy life, you don’t choose this place. But if you like challenges and you like to feel the weather on your face, and feel that you can manage and achieve things with your hands and your body, then it’s really satisfying to live in a place like this. It’s a different life than the city, but it’s more fulfilling in the way that you feel a sense of accomplishment. All the different seasons are joyful because they are so different.”
– Oddveig Iren Digre Satereng
“We are destroying the earth. The weather will continue to be unstable. I think it is mostly done by humans, by lots of things we do. Our industries. Now we have several seasons in a week.”
– Berit Sara
Translation, transcription, editing or other support by:
Christine Witt, La Wayaka Current, Sofie Iverson, Victor Fernández, Aslat Mahte Guap, Melissa Karen Lantto-Anti, Lena Torjussen Rosvold, Katy Kelleher, Tasha Graff, Tom Rybus, and Harper Burke.