In this ClimateGenn episode, I am speaking with Dr Tero Mustonen who is based within the Arctic Circle about the enormous changes happening there today and that are going to cascade across the globe impacting every one of us.
Indigenous Peoples Inside The Arctic
Tero works with indigenous peoples inside the Arctic Circle and beyond, utilising what is called Traditional Knowledge Systems that include the linguistic, cultural and natural environments that are complex and holistic.
These ancient ways of understanding the world also hold the key to solving many of our systemic problems and yet they are being extinguished, along with the broad swathe of life on Earth.
Arctic methane Releases
One huge concern is the changing state of the frozen Arctic to one that is melting and releasing vast amounts of methane – a very potent greenhouse gas.
Consequences of 400 yrs of colonialism
This is all a result of centuries of extraction and consumption, that underpin our contemporary experience of living in developed nations.
Indigenous peoples hold the key
Despite Tero’s despairing message, he also suggests a pathway to planetary repair through rewinding and by deepening our custodial relationship with nature.
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Nick: Tero, can you start by telling us about your organisation Snowchange?
Tero: Snowchange is a cooperative and we are 21 years old northern organization. [The] HQ is located in a small boreal village called Selkie, population 300. And we are a network of boreal and Arctic communities. Some villages have the status of indigenous peoples and others however have an often traditional or what’s known as a traditional village status like Selkie. So I’m a Finn. I’m not a Sami. But the Sami and Finnish languages are related. They belong into this finno-ugric linguistic family and many of the traditional land-based activities; fisheries and hunting and so on, were shared by the indigenous Sami and Finns. While of course the Sami are the indigenous peoples by constitution but the socio-historical context is quite unique here.
Snowchange was founded in 2000, so we are 21 years old and our main theater of operation is Alaska, Canada, Greenland, European north and Siberia. However, we also have partners in [the area around ? ] New Zealand and indigenous Australians. And it’s a non-profit. And we what we do is essentially three things:
One has to do with trying to support and find ways of navigating climate change from the viewpoint of communities and especially indigenous people secondly, we have a big rewilding program where we try to buy time and habitats and lastly, there’s a cultural heritage and science unit; so we publish a lot of our peer-reviewed papers in journals and support small languages and nomadic schools and the Unesco world heritage things.
Nick: Obviously, the word change is indicative in its own sense. Can you talk about the environmental changes and risks you’re increasingly exposed to at the moment?
Tero: Yeah, this is one of the parts of the world where the mode of life, the mind of the people, the mindset and linguistic diversity have come up together with the natural environment. And by having this kind of land-based economies, well of course, a lot of the north is also very modern. Helsinki is one of the most modern capitals in the world. But out here in the peripheries, the idea of nature-based economies like fisheries is very central. But it’s not only an economic activity, it’s a holistic complex where the linguistic diversity, cultural diversity, and natural diversity go hand in hand. We often call these kinds of systems ‘traditional knowledge systems’.
What what I’m trying to say is that any change, then, to any aspect of that system has cascading effects on the others.
And if we start from or look in the northern latitudes the boreal, and then further up into the high arctic or tundra ecosystems, have manifested themselves after the last ice age, of course, most of the species here, especially the endemic species, are cold-based. In a way they have the right to be cold to exist, and they can [not] cope in warm environments. Some of the changes which are now underway are a direct threat and a big extinction driver, not only maybe on a national scale. Maybe some of these pockets of species may survive. But regionally and locally extinctions are now going on and further threatened by the fact that it’s getting much warmer here. Especially we can see that on the fish and some of the mammals and birds.
Nick: Okay. We’re seeing a lot more carbon emissions from these regions. Is this something you’re exposed to in anyway or people within your network?
Tero: Well, the short way of answering that is that most of our Siberian and some of our Canadian members are of course being hit far more heavily given the scale of boreal forests and tundra that’s in those countries. Finland may be a big country on the European scale but we are, of course, like a drop in the ocean compared to Siberia. I think you could fit a hundred Finlands into Siberia or something like that. But nevertheless, we are at the westernmost outpost of the taiga or the boreal forest stretch.
And the fires have started here in my village. We had a natural forest fire that started on 20th of June and the reason why it burned, it started from a lightning strike. But it was made worse by the fact that we have nowadays plus 30-degree temperatures.
And I recall already in 2010, 31st of July, when there was a massive fire in western Russia. And you could see the smoke and the result of those huge fires. And we had 37 degrees celsius in our village. And of course, these kinds of drivers are significant in many, many ways.
The complexity of the rising of temperatures is that it doesn’t really spare anybody. It’s such a big driver that once the temperatures get beyond 30, 35 and now in [litoral/little?] Canada, one of the areas where we have been working for 15 years [reached ] 49.6 [degrees] in scales.
And shall we say they matter? Because the ecosystems evolved over the last ice age, or after the ice age, for 10, 000 years to a certain temperature range. Of course, in the past there have been extreme events every once in a while and fires are a natural phenomena of the boreal forest. But nothing in this scale or magnitude has happened and of course, in our work.
So the second part of what we are doing; our science unit is measuring the actual greenhouse gas exchanges, methane and CO2, and also the residual carbon on our fire sites and what the consequences are for downstream water boreal streams here.
We just signed a big cooperative agreement today. So there will be a group of scientists next year assessing that. And secondly, we are financing in the order of about 200 000 US dollars in Siberia to train and support local village groups on early detection.
And then we also supporting the 300 firefighters that have responsibility over 10 million hectares of boreal forest and tundra. And these may sound [like] very funny numbers in the sense that not many people in the big centers of global society understand how Siberia works.
It’s very sparsely populated, and it is actually 300 people that are safeguarding our remote frost forest safety and that’s why there is little that we can do through our Russia program.
Of course, trying to put the fires out early that’s why there’s the idea of early detection and response. And also, we are trying to work with the Italian scientists and some of the Arctic Council work to put in place something called an ‘operational center’ for next year.
So, that satellite feed remote sensing and then other detection mechanisms could be in place to again warn early and fast when the fires start because they will start.
The logic behind that is that it’s 5, 000 kilometers across. For example, in Yakutia. And where do you deploy the helicopter when the fire starts? Who makes that call? And those 300, if we have 50 fires who will be sent in harm’s way? And that’s why the Snowchange partners and collaborators in Siberia, for example, are, in my mind, in some sense, Arctic heroes because they are trying to do their best under immense conditions for the sake of all of us. And they don’t have the money or the equipment or support in many ways.
And of course, now that there’s a deep freeze between the superpowers it’s very hard also politically to advance this. But Snowchange has been working both with ambassador John Kerry, some of the members of the U.S. government, as well as the Russian government, to create mechanisms of technical transfers and knowledge transfers.
Because this is, of course, an issue that doesn’t respect national boundaries.
Nick: Absolutely, I mean cooperation is key. And this is, you know, this is such an important issue. I mean I’ve interviewed many scientists who are rapid… who are very worried about the increasing methane releases inside the Arctic circle especially in the Siberian area. And what’s your experience or understanding of the methane releases at the moment coming, you know, either locally or in Siberia. What sort of increases are we seeing?
Tero: Methane is a complex question in the sense that it’s a part of a natural respiration, if you will, of the Arctic and northern peatlands and forests. So the way the planet is breathing, it’s drawing down CO2 and it’s releasing methane which is a potent and speedy greenhouse gas in its impact but it also dissipates much faster than CO2. In our rewilding work, the logic of why we are operating over 31, 000 hectares and over 55 sites here is to restart and create a landscape model that’s now proliferating very fast in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere to rewild and restore those ecosystems that can be restored on non-permafrost soils to drawdown CO2.
The side effect of that on those peatlands, is that there’s methane being released, and there’s nothing we can do about that. We just have to bite our teeth and acknowledge that the benefit of a natural sink or keeping carbon in the ground will mean that there are some methane releases on the non…non-permafrost soils. And the logic there, is that [not] many people realize that one-third of world’s remaining soil-based carbon is actually here.
So when people were discussing in Glasgow about that remaining budget that humanity has. It’s actually here. And that’s why people associate Amazonia or Indonesian peatlands with the critically important carbon storages, but, in fact, it’s the northern boreal and the Arctic where probably the end game will happen now on the Siberian methane.
We are then entering into a world of permafrost soils and quickly thawing permafrost soils where methane [has been] leaching through (or there are probably better ways of describing this in English). But in fact, the idea is that these are non-point sources of methane that are sped up by big fires, even though the actual impact of a tiaga or tundra fire may not be as big as the one on methane as some of the advocates are saying. However, the residual or cascading impact is the one that really concerns me.
What I mean by that is that on peatlands, on permafrost soils, some of the land burns through the winter. So even now at minus 60 in Siberia, we have video footage of a peatland on fire. And secondly, when the fire burns it creates a black burn area.
And in the Arctic, of course, you have 24 hours of sunlight. That land is getting much warmer much faster because it’s so dark [MT the black burn area is] and attracts sunlight or traps it somewhat. Now, what are the concern points [point of concern?]? Uum, methane of course comes also from human systems in the Arctic. So there’s the flaring, there’s the residual methane that’s being released from the large Alaskan, Canadian, and Russian oil fields, and natural gas fields.
And there’s something we could do on technology and improving, shall we say infrastructure? The one that happens when permafrost source melts or thaws and they release this methane both on the Siberian coastline on the sea and then on land. What can we do about that?
Not much. We should, and that’s one of the things I’ve been exchanging with, for example, with the US colleagues, one of the things we should be doing much better is monitoring.
What I mean by that is that the birds in the sky, the satellites, and remote sensing may give us, shall we say, on rough scales, the points where it’s leaching.
But we need many more field expeditions to determine also the outputs; those so-called sinkholes and craters that happen when there’s a gas burst. And those are very hard to pick up on that scale that matters if we strictly look at the methane.
My concerns have to do with the permafrost thaw and the releases that are extremely hard to control and they are also happening. For example, on the east Siberian sea coast. Not many people realize, because they haven’t been there, that the actual Siberian coastline
is extremely shallow and it’s not very deep, in some parts 10 meters, 15 meters and that’s why the way methane is bursting from the ocean floor is reaching the atmosphere rather fast. And the best action we could do is, probably, increase our monitoring and discussions on detection as fast as we can in order to have an international panel on Arctic methane or a US/ Russian panel that could indicate where we are and how bad is it.
Nick: Okay, so, obviously, and you’ve touched on this just now, but the Arctic is also a source of industrial methane. In a way, it’s being mined or extracted in Russia and Alaska and all along there which again is feeding back into the atmosphere and heating the whole system.
We seem to be in a bit of a crisis.
You know generally, in terms of when we come back to Glasgow and things like that. Back on the ground, you’re talking about this bigger need for observation.
Is that a bigger need for indigenous peoples as you see it? And also if you are talking about that you’re talking about a changing landscape. Is there a risk to these people’s livelihoods or just personal well-being?
Tero: Of course, one could be sad. But what’s the point of being sad for one person with all these changes underway? It’s much more important to do what we still can and then ultimately, most of the Arctic and boreal communities in these regions are so remote that they will face a lot of these questions, even today on their own. Of course, these
kinds of system shifts have immediate and significant consequences. For example, our fishery.
My other job is as a fishing person on a boreal lake which is fully dependent on the proper ice cover and as the records show in 1968 the sailing and the fishery could start in mid-November and end in mid-May. In most of the years now it starts in the end of January and it’s over at the end of March if it’s a good year. So, these kinds of system shifts, alongside how nature is changing have direct impacts [on] to the human communities that are either through their profession or culture or food security still dependent on these systems.
And that, of course, is one of the reasons why there’s so much traditional knowledge and understanding of nature still [as] (in the level of Amazonia) in some parts of the north. For the reindeer herders, for example, the fact that landscapes are thawing a meter a year means that they will have to change their nomadic routes. Travel on the land
becomes a safety issue because in the past they could have planned that the animals and the herders will travel across a river or a lake system but suddenly the ice behaves differently. It’s either thin or there are open holes and cracks where they were not in the past.
And also the extreme events. So there are now huge hurricanes that come in from the Arctic ocean and they have killed people. For example, in the community of New Dentale (it’s an indigenous Chukchi reindeer herding community) a family lost their lives because there was a cyclone as they would call it or big storm that came unexpectedly from the Arctic sea blew the tents away and it was still -50. So they froze to death.
And of course, these are the silent, silent losses that very few people hear about. But these are also some of the last nomadic communities on the planet and they may preserve, much like indigenous Australians, for example, they may preserve memory, relations with nature and understanding of long-term change that science can only dream about.
In the sense that they were actually there and they have passed on or kept memories of the ice age as the Haida are arguing that in Canada that they have oral histories about the ice age.
Then of course one of the things that has now also manifested in the Arctic is anthrax. So in 2016 we lost a young Nenette’s boy because in those former campsites of the reindeer herders that were used 100 years ago there was the animal graveyards they had dumped [?] animals [in] to the permafrost and now it’s thawing and the anthrax reactivated.
We are not far away from smallpox either. And of course, when you think of what happened to indigenous peoples in the previous pandemics, 100 years ago with smallpox and so on. You can have some Inuit villages or first nations villages in Canada that
lost 95 percent of the population to diseases that they don’t have the immunity to.
The last thing I can for example mention is floods. So I was part of a 15-year long monitoring mission to study the Alazea river in Arctic Russia, in Siberia.
And our focal point was a 2007 flood that happened so that the whole village of Andrewruskina was flooded. This is probably the most remote part of Siberia. And all the buildings were flooded. And this sudden or a freak flood happened most likely because of the changes to the hydrological cycle in the permafrost.
So the river that the locals could rely on for thousands of years that the flood will come at a certain time and in certain ways became upside down. And there were dozens of indigenous peoples [who] lost their homes.
Like who cares? What is the party that even pays attention, when 20 or 50 people are impacted in these extremely remote communities?
Yet, these are probably the kind of warning signs and system shifts that we should be listening to far more now because the Arctic is, you know, in a way a decade ahead of the rest of the planet or maybe 15 years.
So, much like the pacific islanders, the Arctic doesn’t have the media power or attention. I mean, the true Arctic that really is. Of course, there’s always the image of the melting polar bear and an iceberg. But the actual region and the actual people here don’t often get their voices heard. And these are some of the real things that have already happened.
And yet the Arctic systems are critical to the ocean circulation, to the safeguarding of the planetary climate security. And the change in scale here, well, (I’m not a big fan of the tipping
points concept, but let’s use it for the argument’s sake here). Whatever happens here will have a tipping impact probably, on a lot of the other drivers around the planet.
Nick: Yeah, and you just outlined a series of tragedies and every single one of them is a warning to everybody, and yet none of this is filtering down and we go back to Glasgow, which we can only really see it as a policy failure in terms of addressing the problems that we really face.
How do we focus attention on this without concentrating on polar bears or sending activists up for photoshoots in the Arctic?
How do we draw attention to the, I think you’ve just outlined as well, this connection between what’s going on in the Arctic and in the lower latitudes?
The sea ice connects to the to the jet stream, the jet stream is connected to global agriculture. You know all these things are part of one system and whatever you’re experiencing now it’s going to manifest itself down here, you know I mean, southern Europe you know it’s going to manifest itself down here soon. We all are in the same boat, unfortunately, it’s just, it’s an incredible situation.
How does Snowchange community, I know you’re doing a lot of science-based work, but do you do much media outreach?
Tero: Well we have been lucky in the sense that BBC came twice and ABC has come and I often speak with the Guardian or some of the media houses, Al Jazeera or the Canadian CBC.
We can’t. It’s a lost game.
Nick: Do you think it’s… it’s too late to reverse this.. what’s going on in the Arctic now?
Tero: Yeah, it’s, it’s a, perhaps not pleasant thing to hear, but it’s also the true thing that is going on.
The changes which are already here are so big in scale and system shifts, that this will become a new planet soon.
However, that’s where our attention, perhaps, should be. In that case, how do we lessen and transition? But there’s nothing we can do anymore to stop that. Not even the spiritual leaders, or some cultural leaders, the pope or bono, or whoever is out there, can help anymore.
My father-in-law when he was alive, was a sea captain.
He drove large cargo vessels between Europe and Canada. And he told me in 2002 that the waves in the north Atlantic, he had been navigating ships across for 40 years, the waves are now so different and so big that there’s nothing, uh, they could do for example, if a 40 meter wave hits them and snaps the cargo vessel into two. So 20 years ago, the oceans were in a state where a sea captain with 40 years of experience Matipuli outlined that the oceans are now in a different place than he has ever seen them.
I worked with an Inuit elder or Inubiak elder called Stanton Catchattack in a small village in Alaska on the Bering Strait. He was good friends, for example, with Bill Clinton. He was a devout democrat but this is not a political statement of course, but he was very active in society.
Stanton, when we worked together he was 85 or something, and and he said that back in 1972 the ocean started to change on the Bering sea. That’s how early on the Inuits knew that the system shift is underway. Because for them, this is not a thrival or debatable issue. It’s a life system where they are part of, a very long and direct engagement in a profound way with the sea with the ice and with these ecosystems.
And because the, I’ll try to be as short and clear as I can, the reason why we will fail is that the current climate change that we are experiencing now is a legacy of the colonial practice around the world of the past 400 years. What I mean by that is the unlimited use of natural resources that has now resulted in a catastrophic shift in planetary ecology.
And because it’s so far underway and we don’t have any tool in our disposal that could address even the start of the problem (maybe some emission cuts and so on and so on) the question is then:
How many millions of lives will we lose? And how can we lessen that as we transition? What do we do when Shanghai and New York city are underwater?
How do we safeguard, or do we want to safeguard this kind of a global order security? Or, if you turn this the other way, if these facts are true, that the colonial history is the result of where we are today, without any political blaming just realizing that it happened.
And secondly, we are unwilling to touch the root cause which is the economic system, continuous growth or we are not even allowed to challenge that trade, growth, and profits.
There’s nothing we can do because no technological fix or some engineering solution will come in time or be based on nature that would be safe.
That’s that’s the naked truth, in that sense that the emperor has no clothes anymore.
But then things become very interesting if we have a conversation on when the new planet comes and as we are heading towards that. What can we do to lessen the blow, transition our societies, and put in place mechanisms that the impacts would, would be as small as they can?
I don’t know what to do because or, I don’t know many solutions when I think of our active region, for example in British Columbia, which is part of the boreal and coastal rainforests in Canada. So in June they were having temperatures of 49.6 [degrees]. Five months later, they were hit [with] what was known as a once in a century flood that essentially wiped out the whole lower mainland and shut down Vancouver harbor and blah blah blah, all these impacts. That happened five months after the region was scarred and one billion sea creatures lost their lives.
And if these are events that took place in a span of 180 days there’s nothing in human disposal that could answer to those drivers of why they happened. They may work on evacuations or road constructions. New bridges will come. But nobody is discussing; what will the lower mainland look like in rewilded, non-profit, futures.
Tero: It’s not compatible with our way of life. And that’s why I come back to the notion that as a global society most likely we can’t do anything. Indigenous peoples and those of us who are still working closely with ecosystems (and perhaps inside them) somehow will have of course completely different strategic views.
We are maintaining fisheries; we are training young people; women; we are safeguarding and putting food away because the tally is pretty evident. But I always try to say that this is not the end.
It’s not the Hollywood zombie films. That’s what they… that’s part of the mind control as well. Always to tell us that there’s nothing we can do. There’s so much we can do! But there is nothing we can do to stop or prevent what’s underway.
Nick: Okay. And I mean that’s a pretty dire scenario and probably not that unexpected to many people who are in this space.
But where you…where you finished there was much more in this.. in the sort of mindset of the indigenous uh sort of custodial approach to the planet. Given where we are, is this something that, I mean the people, I think there’s a growing support now from people at lower latitudes in the developed countries who are just saying you know, ‘What on earth can we do?’
Supporting indigenous practices, indigenous peoples. Is that something that we should be more focused on and trying to sort of come together and raise up these, I’m going to call them strategies, but I know it’s much deeper than that.
What do you think?
Tero: Well, every hectare matters, and every bumblebee or bird or a mouse has inherent value even if they live for the day.
So what I try to mean by that is that be as honest and brutal as you can. Where are you living? If you are living in a high rise in India in Delhi, what can you do to talk to your uncle who still has a patch of forest up in Ganges or Rajasthan or wherever and preserve that?
Or if you are in the west in the UK. If you have a garden could you uh create a wild garden where you could enable the native flowers to take over and support the local pollinators. Maybe there is a frog family that lives there, a hedgehog. These are now critically important square meters that we fight for. And the more we can rewild, the more we can preserve, the more we can keep out of harm’s way.
Uh, that’s where the solution is and that’s what most of the people [understand] without going into any indigenous narratives. What people tend to forget is that the big system is comprised of those square meters.
And most of your drinking water sources, most of your food available to you, and the ecosystem services (as science calls them) like for example the way carbon is cycled through the system or energy travels or whatever. The case is fully 100 hundred percent dependent on whether we still have natural systems functioning or not. And that’s why the fight in many ways, is about the land and the water. And whatever you can do to create even a square inch more space will matter. Not much else will matter.
I think all the shopping lists that we get from the high-minded people and well-trained and well-meaning people, probably [such as] on ‘Switch off your lights.’ and ‘Save energies’ and all these things, [are] great.
But in some ways, they are putting the, perhaps unspoken, blame on the wrong place in my mind. Let’s go and take a step back on where power lies.
This is a fuel and oil-based empire that’s running [on] our roads and our economies or has been at least over 90 [%] reliable [based] on the way one set of models of a combustion engine and how oil is produced, [is] sold and value [is] created.
Solutions won’t come [from] there. That’s an empire that doesn’t want to die. That’s always the case for the empire.
And that’s why the real land, the actual physical soil, that you might have or you might influence is, of course, where the hope lies. Even a half a hectare probably in the UK will matter for pollinators maintaining something.
And if nothing else, as I said before, those creatures on that one hectare or acre, will have a life, which matters in an inherent sense. They had a life there and that matters. Life matters always but then of course my own thoughts rest with ideas.
And we at Snowchange, we have welcomed for example donations from ordinary people. I’m not saying send us money or trying to say that.
By pulling together with your friends, with your family could you work with organizations that are rewilding and restoring habitats?
Look at what happened to the Thames. It used to be a garbage dump and now to my knowledge, as Alistair Driver was explaining to you, your former EPA director, salmon has come back. Sometimes seals come up there are wonderful, um, mudflats and wadding? birds have come back to the delta of Thames close to Essex and so on, and so on.
So nature is not lost. We can do things today, tomorrow, in a decade because there is no shopping list. There is no one single thing. It is that fight for those square meters, fight for that hedge and the hedgehog if you will, and abandoned land. Enable natural cycles to restart. Don’t manage it, don’t. If you own land don’t manage it at all, let it turn into a Caledonian young forest or whatever. So, that’s, in a way, the only advice I have.
Maybe the side effect of those kinds of actions is that know your nature more. If you are in a city, do you know how a pigeon lives through the year? Where are they nesting? How are they feeding? And it’s only through or by, knowing the nature, and being on the land even in a city, that some hope may come.
Because ultimately all of what we are discussing now, even with you, is a story.
When I’m now reviewing these global crises with Nick, it’s ultimately, a discussion on our unlearning from nature. And we can travel that journey back in our minds.
Nick: Yeah. I see. I see exactly what you’re talking about. It’s this idea we have to start thinking in terms of new beginnings and returning to nature and maybe retreating from.. from nature where we’ve imposed ourselves so much.
Tero: And we can be still part of society. We can vote. We can go to the job, we could cycle to the job.
When these big topics are discussed you will hear from many indigenous peoples for example, or I can say as a village leader from eastern Finland that it’s not a technological, economic or.. or engineering crisis where we are.
It’s one of mind and spirit in the sense that by, um, immersing ourselves with that actual world that we are in, I think, a lot of solutions could happen.
And the gap between a small-scale fisherman on the coast of Newcastle and Mr Johnson, that’s the gap we should be addressing because one [of them] goes out daily to his crabbing or cod fishery or whatever is the case, in a small boat that his family has been doing for 500 years and he knows the ocean. He also knows the waves. But he also knows that something is now completely different.
And then the big man in the big office always will rely on the experts and on the machinery and that’s… that’s our biggest reason, to my mind, why the transition, why the transformation, and the system shift never comes.
Because the system doesn’t want to change that’s also the planned message.
And the only way to change it, unfortunately, is on the individual level that then becomes a group action that then becomes something that matters on the new world.
Nick: Absolutely. I think that that’s the conclusion that is becoming emergent through the continual 26 failures of the COP if you like. So Tero, this is a really good place to end the conversation because um I think we’ve we’ve gone right through the sort of despair side and out the other side into what can be.
And thank you very much for talking to me. And I hope we can speak again at a later point.
Tero: It was a wonderful praise that happened