The GO Abroad: A Summer in Sweden

I’ve lived my whole life by the corn. I’m not a farm kid, but the town that I grew up in is on the edge of Chicago suburbia, so if you drive five minutes west out of town, you’re in the cornfields. Then I chose to come to UIUC for college. I’m not saying this is a bad thing at all —  It’s just that cornfields as far as the eye can see aren’t the most exciting landscape.

So imagine my awe this summer when I stepped into Sweden’s portion of the Scandinavian Mountains. This wasn’t the first time I saw mountains, but it sure felt like it. Somehow, driving past the Appalachians doesn’t compare to actually being in the mountains. The Scandinavian Mountains (or in Swedish, the Skanderna) aren’t the tallest in the world by any means. The tallest peak, Sweden’s Kebnekaise, is just under 7,000 feet tall. But they are truly majestic all the same. Even in summer, when temperatures reach 60oF, the slopes are snow-streaked and there are glaciers abound. To an inexperienced Midwesterner, they were a vision of what mountains should be like.

But of course, not everything is as perfect as it seems. As you might know, the glaciers are melting, and that was one of the reasons that I was there. I spent five weeks of this summer in Sweden studying abroad, two of them within the Arctic Circle where Sweden’s mountains are found. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience that exposed me to several effects of climate change and other environmental issues that are not often recognized outside of Scandinavia.

The Stockholm Summer Arctic Program has taken place each summer for the past five years as a collaboration between UIUC and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, one of Sweden’s top engineering universities. A group of students from UIUC travels to Stockholm where they spend three weeks studying with Swedish students at KTH. The final two weeks are spent touring various locations in Sweden’s Arctic, including five days hiking in the Skanderna’s Tarfala Valley. The title of the course is Environment and Society in a Changing Arctic. I shouldn’t have to tell you that global warming is a big reason that the Arctic’s environment and society are changing, but it’s not the only one. There are huge mining industries in northern Sweden, particularly for iron ore and copper, and almost all of the major rivers in the region are dammed to provide hydroelectricity for the entire country.

For good reason, Sweden is known as a very fair and green country to live in. Refugees are welcome, and nuclear or hydropower provide 96% of the country’s electricity. But no country is perfect. The mines have created irreparable gouges in the ground and caused more than one city to start falling into the earth. Kiruna, the largest city in northern Sweden, is being moved to a new location so that iron ore mining can continue. Hydropow

er, while a clean source of energy, has drastically decreased the flow of the river systems, disrupting salmon migration patterns and dulling many once magnificent sights. These issues, as well as climate change, are unfortunate for all Swedes and visitors, but no one feels the effects of northern Sweden’s changing environment and society quite as strongly as the Sámi do.

If you just had to Google who the Sámi are, you’re not alone. They are a rather forgotten indigenous people that have inhabited the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia for 6,000 years. If you’ve heard of them, it’s probably because of reindeer herding. Only ten percent of today’s Sámi herd, but historically, reindeer husbandry was their biggest livelihood, and they’re still most known for it. As is the case with many indigenous groups around the world, the effects of environmental change are disproportionately large for the Sámi.

While the Swedes never committed violence against the Sámi comparable to what numerous other indigenous peoples faced, they have been subject to cultural oppression and their land was forcibly colonized for its resources. While many Sámi today are fairly assimilated to Swedish culture, the pain of the destruction of so much of their land is still real. For those that do still live relatively traditional lifestyles, their ability to do so is impeded by towns, roads, and mines — all of which greatly complicate the regular migration routes of their reindeer. Sweden has even refused to adopt a UN convention recognizing indigenous rights so the mining industry doesn’t suffer.

My experience in Sweden was important for countless reasons, but what I learned about Arctic Sweden and the Sámi reminded me very strongly that the effects of environmental destruction aren’t in the future. They’re already here, even if we don’t all feel them yet, and it is of vital importance that we try our best to the reverse the process.

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