Sea ice, rain-on-snow and tundra reindeer nomadism in Arctic Russia

Biology Letters, November 2016

Authors: Bruce C. Forbes, Timo Kumpula, Nina Meschtyb, Roza Laptander, Marc Macias-Fauria, Pentti Zetterberg, Mariana Verdonen, Anna Skarin, Kwang-Yul Kim, Linette N. Boisvert, Julienne C. Stroeve, Annett Bartsch

According to oral histories collected among fully nomadic tundra Nenets on Yamal Peninsula in West Siberia, extreme weather (rain-on-snow) events resulting in significant mortality within tundra herds have occurred roughly once per decade during the past century.

The extreme weather events of November 2006 and 2013 caused mass reindeer starvation that we were able to track in detail using state-of-the-art satellite sensors. The most recent rain-on-snow event of November 2013 resulted in ca. 61,000 reindeer deaths, about 22% out of 275,000 reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula at the time. Empirical data and modelling efforts for the events in 2006 and 2013 found that the likely trigger was brief periods of significant Barents and Kara sea ice retreat during early November. Relatively warm, open water and fragmented ice allowed high levels of atmospheric humidity to develop, while onshore winds combined with anomalously high November air temperatures led to eventual rainfall over extensive continental areas in the Nenets and Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs.

Socio-economic and ecological implications of the 2013-14 event will play out for years to come. The herders who lost their reindeer through starvation have resorted to full-time fishing in situ, while also borrowing breeding stock to rebuild their herds. In the meantime, northern Yamal pastures that are normally subject to intense grazing pressure in summer will likely experience less grazing and trampling.

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Photo: Reindeer frozen into the snowpack from spring 2014, Roma Serotetto