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Finnmark 2007 Diary » Blog Archive » The snowflake lady

The snowflake lady


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Jovial and forthright in her views, Inge Maria Gaup Eira must be one of the world’s foremost authorities on snowflakes. The eponymous half-Inuit heroine of Peter Hoeg’s bestselling thriller ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ may have famously solved a murder through her ability to identify different types of snowflakes, for which she claimed there were thirty-two words in the Inuit language; Inge Maria Eira, however, thinks she might make an even better Sami detective, for in four years’ time, when she will have completed her doctorate at Tromso University, she hopes to have mastered (and published) the definitions of as many as 300 different single words which the Sami reindeer-herders have used over the centuries to distinguish the numerous different characteristics and consistencies of snow.

Thus, for example, the Sami word ‘cearga’ describes a hard snow that is not good for reindeer; ‘ceavvi’ is snow that is in the process of warming; ‘cuognes’ is snow that is hard and freezing, etc… ‘With knowledge of these words, people can learn how reindeer-herders were and are thinking,’ Inge Maria says. She is very much dependent in her research on the wisdom and memory of her uncle, Anders Eira, who will be ninety in September and who still tends his own herd of reindeer. To give us a practical illustration of her work,on a bright spring-like morning, the two of them went out onto their land and dug a four-foot hole in the snow down to the grass beneath. Though plentiful and very deep, the soft, powdery quality of that day’s snow was judged to be excellent for reindeer, who would have had little difficulty in delving beneath for lichen or grass with their hooves.

Inge Maria is also helped in her documentation by six other reindeer herders in Western Finnmark who keep records for her of the types and characteristics of new snowfalls, as well as data of climate. ‘My aim,’ she says, ‘is to combine the traditional knowledge that men such as my uncle have with modern meteorological science.’ She, like us on the Finnmark 2007 expedition, is also involved in collecting data for the international snowflake project on behalf of NASA.

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One Response to “The snowflake lady”

  1. Susan Koh Says:

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    I am very much enjoying following the progress of the expedition and reading about the Sami culture. Beautiful photos as well. I am passing the diary on to my father, a native Finn. Thank you for this picture into the lives of the Sami.

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