Plop. Splash! Drip.
The Times, December 22, 2007
Drip, drip, drip sounds the slow death knell of Santa’s Lapland hideaway, as climate change threatens to turn childhood dreams to slush
Time is running out for tourists in search of real snow and an authentic Father Christmas at Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle.
Every year, like some extraordinary migratory species, many tens of thousands of British tourists trek to this remote northern outpost in search of the authentic Father Christmas. Kitted out with thermal underwear and Arctic explorer jumpsuits, they are treated not only to the unofficial anthem of Finnish Lapland – Wham’s Last Christmas – but also, even more ominously, to the sound of melting snow.
The Arctic Circle this week was warmer and soggier than the British Midlands. Everywhere there was the wrenching noise of snow slipping off roofs, the creak of timber. Global warming is catching up with the Santa business and there is trouble brewing in the grotto.
“I really was expecting more snow,” Terry Peates, a 53-year-old window cleaner from the Forest of Dean, said. Mr Peates remembers a cold British winter in the 1960s when a whole double-decker bus disappeared under a drift. All the Arctic has been able to offer him this Christmas is a few streaks of grey, ageing snow. “Still, it’s the first time that Ben has seen the stuff, so it has got some magic.” He pointed to his eight-year-old grandson. Behind them both was a sign next to the local lake: “Warning: thin ice.”
Rovaniemi, the administrative capital of Lapland, is on the Arctic Circle, at the same latitude as the glaciers of Greenland and grimmest corners of Siberia, where the frost sinks a kilometre into the ground. Last year it had no snow at all: this year you think twice about whether to wear a woolly hat.
“The dogs were the ones to smell global warming first,” the man who calls himself Husky Dundee, in imitation of the fictional, intrepid Australian crocodile hunter, said. The Arctic version breakfasts on a cigarette, wears leather hides, sports a long, sharp hunting knife and has the ruddy wind-chafed face of a man who often sleeps in the open, wrapped in reindeer skins.
“They hate the water, so they refuse to cross the river when it is thinner than 14 centimetres [5½in] of ice. Now we have what? Four, five centimetres maybe.”
Husky Dundee was taking The Times out with one of his dog teams, across the frozen swamps where he gathers cranberries in the summer, to show us how climate change is altering the face of the once-frozen north. As we helter-skeltered through the birch trees – I fell off the back once, Times photographer David Bebber barely stirring from the sledge to take the shot – a willow grouse, still fat from gorging on summer mosquitos, belly-flopped across our path. “Everything is changing here,” said the husky trainer, who recently ran the dog teams for the Finnish Arctic expedition. “Sure, the animals have gone into winter sleep but it will be just like 40 winks, a nap. Because the temperature today is – what? – barely freezing and usually at this time of year it is minus 15C [-2F]. Something’s gone wrong – look at the sky!” Above us, with dawn breaking, there was a huge cloud, as grey as marble, vaguely reminiscent of a nuclear mushroom.
“In 20 years in the wilderness I have never seen a sky like that,” Husky Dundee said. “It must mean something.”
The land above the Arctic Circle is a kind of early warning system for the planet; change is registered here more quickly than at the Equator. According to some predictions the Arctic Ocean could be entirely free of ice by the summer of 2013.
Levi, a resort in the far north of Finland that is becoming a favourite of buy-to-letters because, unlike Austria and Switzerland, it guarantees snow, had to withdraw as a venue for the World Alpine Slalom contest this year. The snow arrived too late. Snow cannon are being used on ski slopes close to Rovaniemi. Snow cannon in the Arctic!
“If it carries on like this I will have to move farther north,” Dundee said. “Up close to the North Pole, or maybe to the moon – really cold up there.”
As for Father Christmas, he may have to move farther north too. About 800,000 tourists visit Finnish Lapland every year and a large proportion of them, about 120,000, are British, tired of a festive season defined by plastic trees and Marks & Spencer puddings.
Every day in the lead-up to Christmas 20 charter flights a day land in Roviniemi. Farther north, in Kittila, 200 flights touch down during Christmas week from Manchester and London. Many of them are day trippers. They fly their children from England before dawn, land in Lapland, are handed their thermals and then on to Santa Park for a reindeer trip and a visit to Father Christmas. Or to the neighbouring competitor, Santa Village, where a disturbingly similar Father Christmas holds court near a post office that processes begging letters from 750,000 children a year (most come from Britain). Then it is back in the coach and on to the plane.
“The carbon emissions are just mind-boggling,” the elf, who calls herself Cranberry, said. Like most of the elves, all dressed in daft caps and baggy pants, recruited to help the Santa business, Cranberry is doing a degree in eco-tourism at the North Karelian University and one day she will be part of the Finnish team that has to manage the effects of the climate crisis on her home region.
“Three or four-day trips are OK, gentler on the environment,” she said. “But I would ban these in-and-out tourists and the snow-mobilers.” Snow-mobiles, as powerful as motor-bikes, spew out diesel fumes that linger in the air. They are the transport of choice for the post-reindeer Lapps.
A three-day trip to Lapland does not come cheap. It can cost between £700 and £1,200 a person, plus about £300 for extras. A family of four can easily find itself spending £7,000.
“It is a lot of money,” a British travel representative said at the Arctic Hotel Pohtimo, a half-hour drive out of Rovaniemi. “But the logic is this: kids in England often stop believing in Father Christmas by the age of 5 or 6. Other children at school start to sow doubts. But if they come here, they get awed into belief.
“And you know what? Their childhood lasts a couple of years longer. That is what people are paying for.”
The illusion only really works, however, if there is snow and a nip in the air. Otherwise you might as well be taking children to the local grotto in Croydon. “Our children were told that they would be the last generation to experience Christmas snow so they had better make the most of it,” Sharon Carlyle, who works for Aer Lingus in Dublin, said.
Certainly the Carlyle children made the most of the huge, vaguely sinister snowmen that lurk like statues of forgotten dictators across the Lapp tourist sites: at the airports, at Santa Park, Santa Village and in the centre of Roviniemi.
As for Eliot Carlyle, 8, he was one of many thousands of children to be struck dumb this week in the presence of Father Christmas sitting on a kind of throne. The great man speaks English with a Finnish accent and has breath that smells of sour milk.
When I asked him what children were asking for this year, he replied with a force that made me recoil: “Ten Dovi” Ten Doves? No such luck: Nintendo Wii.
Father Christmas saved Roviniemi. In past centuries it was a centre of the fur trade but the German Army burnt down the place when they were forced to retreat from the north by Finnish ski-troops.
In 1950 Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the American President Franklin Roosevelt, visited the village at the invitation of the Lutheran Church to inspect the damage. A wooden hut was built, straddling the Arctic Circle, to honour the occasion. That cabin became part of the rebranding of Lapland as Santa-land.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Finns played the Santa card for all it was worth. Reindeer herding, a hard calling, suddenly seemed glamorous. Even the national carrier, Finnair, describes itself as the Official Airline of Santa Claus.
Now global warming may force Santa to abandon Roviniemi and move towards the Pole because, for the British child, there is no Santa without snow, no Christmas without the white stuff. It is, in these merry days, a sad moment.