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Global warming may soon see Santa don shorts

By Gael Branchereau (Agence France Press) - December 17, 2007

If the most dire climate forecasts come true the tourism industry in Europe’s far north, already feeling the effects of global warming, may find itself promoting a Santa in shorts and a camel-drawn sleigh.

Each year at the end of autumn, residents, shopkeepers, travel agencies, reindeer herders and even politicians in the Finnish Arctic town of Rovaniemi — home to Santa Claus’ Village, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Finland — look to the skies in the hopes of a snowy winter.

“Everyone working in tourism here is worried. The past three or four years have been difficult for us,” says Jarmo Kariniemi, owner of the Santa Claus’ Office in Rovaniemi which each year attracts 340,000 visitors eager to meet the “real” Father Christmas.

This December, with only a few weeks to go before Christmas, there are only 20 centimeters (seven-and-a-half inches) of snow on the ground, just enough for snowmobiles and dog- and reindeer sleighs.

But the rivers and lakes, which normally freeze over in winter and are used to take tourists on snowmobile or sleigh rides, have not turned to ice yet, and that’s bad news.

Tourism generates some 235 million euros (345 million dollars) of direct and indirect revenue in Finnish Lapland, of which about 60 percent comes during winter.

It is an enormous amount of money for the region, hit hard by high unemployment and the rural exodus to bigger towns.

“The winter tourism period in the Nordic countries will be shorter and shorter, both at the beginning and towards the end, and it will go fast and it will be huge,” climatologist Heikki Tuomenvirta told AFP.

Average temperatures in Finland will rise by three to six degrees Celsius in winter by 2050, and by four to eight degrees by 2080. The average winter temperature in Rovaniemi will rise from 15 degrees Celsius below zero (five degrees F) to eight below (18 F).

“Precipitation in winter will increase, with both rain and snow, and then there will be more rain,” Tuomenvirta said.

More rain will melt the snow that normally covers the vast region from November to April, she added.

Towns further north of Rovaniemi are already making the most of the first effects of global warming to attract tourists.

“The amount of snow varies from year to year in Rovaniemi, while here the snow is guaranteed,” said Carina Winnebaeck, a hotel manager in Enontekioe.

This village of 2,000 people, located a three-hour drive north of Rovaniemi, has already succeeded in persuading British tour operators to bring planefulls of holiday tourists seeking a winter wonderland to their town.

While global warming presents several short-term advantages — lower energy bills, greater agricultural possibilities, a longer summer tourism season — the long-term effects are dire for the region’s fauna, flora and local population.

Reindeer herding, the traditional activity and main income for the 70,000 indigenous Sami people spread out across the Arctic, is also at risk.

“Last year we were in northern Russia following the reindeer migration, and it went from -28 degrees C to above zero (-18 to above 32 degrees F),” said Bruce Forbes, a biogeographist at Rovaniemi’s Arctic Institute.

Then “it snowed and rained and went down to minus 40,” he said, explaining that the temperature swings led to alternating layers of thick snow and ice which the reindeers could not break through to get to the lichen they eat to survive through the winter.

“The herders had to physically break the ice to help the animals,” he said.

Sami Ruismaeki is one of Finland’s 7,000 reindeer herders whose livelihood has become more and more precarious.

“When it doesn’t rain, there are no mushrooms and the reindeer aren’t able to build up their body fat before the long winter. Then the lichen disappears under the heavy layers of ice,” he said.

The reindeer “have to be fed with grain or hay, and we have to bring water from home. It’s not profitable anymore,” he said.