Reindeer and Nordic forest affect global climate

On opening day of the 21st UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, Nordic scientists from the Top-level Research Initiative presented their views on how to achieve a more sustainable climate.

The Nordic pavilion – New Nordic Climate Solutions – at the 21st UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris will be hosting some 50 events throughout the summit, which runs from 30 November to 11 December 2015. NordForsk contributed to discussions on the first day of the conference by presenting research findings from the Top-level Research Initiative.

Two Nordic experts, Professor Jaana Bäck, former project coordinator of the Nordic Centre of Excellence (NCoE) CRAICC – Cryosphere-Atmosphere Interactions in a Changing Arctic Climate, and Professor Jukka Käyhkö, who heads the NCoE TUNDRA – How to preserve the tundra in a warming climate, spoke on their respective research areas, which focus on forests and reindeer husbandry in the Nordic countries, among other things.

Nordic forest helps to cool Earth

Professor Bäck presented research results regarding the boreal (meaning northern) forest belt south of the tundra, across subarctic areas of Eurasia and North America. While the term “boreal” may be largely unknown outside of scientific circles, these forests play a major role in cooling the climate, functioning much like a rain forest by absorbing atmospheric CO2 and binding large amounts of carbon, especially to the soil. In addition to storing carbon, the boreal forests contribute to formation of particles called aerosols into the atmosphere, which further cools the climate. With proper management, these forests may be able to absorb twice as much CO2 as they currently do. One of Professor Bäck’s key points was that changes in the boreal forests in the past decade have had an overall cooling effect on the climate.

Making active use of knowledge about reindeer climate effect

One of the topics Professor Käyhkö’s NCoE TUNDRA has been studying is the potential cooling effect of reindeer husbandry on the climate, as reindeer help to keep tundra vegetation in check. Arctic warming encourages forest growth. Compared with relatively dark forest cover, tundra’s vast pale surface reflects more solar radiation back into the space. Therefore, reindeer could play an important mitigating role by hindering the tundra from turning into forest. 

Besides ecological aspects, another focus of Professor Käyhkö’s talk was how we convert data about these conditions into real understanding to be concretely applied in reindeer husbandry practices. His conclusion was clear: “participatory design” is needed to ensure that reindeer husbandry can continue sustainably and that the people whose livelihood depends on reindeer can survive socially and culturally. This means that reindeer herders must be deeply involved in developing management practices so that the livelihood not only survives but also can actively contribute to climate solutions.

Prior to the two presentations, NordForsk showed a film about the Top-level Research Initiative and the research results of its six NCoE centres and a number of smaller research projects. The NCoE centres were launched in 2009; some have since concluded and others are still actively conducting research projects. Common to all of them is that they have generated valuable results with more on the way, as described in the book Solving the Climate Crisis. The audience at the COP21 asked a wide variety of questions. Some participants had travelled all the way from Africa yet were nevertheless keenly interested in the northern climate measures discussed. Clearly, Nordic cooperation has inspired more global cooperation. 


Text: Linn Hoff Jensen

Jostein K. Sundet - Senior Adviser
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