More than 80,000 Arctic reindeers have starved to death because of catastrophic weather in Arctic Russia linked to climate change. (The Royal Society)
According to researchers a fifth of the Russia’s Reindeers in Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula died during two periods of extreme conditions triggered by thinning sea ice in 2006 and 2013.
In both 2006 and 2013, the combination of sea ice retreat, unseasonably warm temperatures, and heavy rains contributed to the onset of impenetrable snow cover. This prevented reindeer from foraging on their usual food supply of lichen and other vegetation. These conditions led to mass famines in both years, killing 20,000 reindeer in 2006 and 61,000 in 2013 marking the largest recorded mortality episode in the region.
“Reindeer are used to sporadic ice cover, and adult males can normally smash through ice around 2 centimetres thick,” Bruce Forbes, lead author at the University of Lapland in Finland told New Scientist. “But in 2006 and 2013, the ice was several tens of centimetres thick.”
This year, the sea-ice cover was the second-lowest on record in the Arctic, and there is fear of another famine.
“If we see such events again this year, it could mean that they’re becoming more frequent,” Forbes stated. “Now is the risk window, and if it happens again, it will be a major problem for traditional reindeer herders still suffering from losses in 2013.”
“This is just another example of the interconnections between the various components of an ecological system,” Peter Pulsifer, leader of the ELOKA project, a group that facilitates the preservation of knowledge of the Arctic by working with residents and experts. “We’ve heard many concerns from residents on the potential impact of many kinds of environmental change on life and livelihoods in the Arctic.”
Historical observations and models indicate the effect of climate change is more pronounced at the poles. White sea ice reflects sunlight, whereas when ice cover diminishes, the darker Arctic water is able to absorb more energy. The result is a feedback loop known as Arctic amplification. NASA climatologists also note that strong tropical thunderstorms at the equator draw heat into the upper atmosphere, where it is circulated toward poles.
As the Siberian climate warms, Forbes said mathematical models predict rains will become more frequent and intense. “We are recommending in the near future that mobile slaughterhouses could be deployed in time to the herds at risk out on the tundra,” he said, “so that reindeer can be slaughtered humanely.” At least that way, he pointed out, herders could receive compensation for the loss of their reindeer.