When it comes to climate change iconography, there’s perhaps no image more recognizable than that of a lone polar bear marooned on a melting sheet of ice.
But as the impacts of a continually warming Earth are felt by more species, new emblematic images are emerging: that of emaciated puffins washing up dead on Alaska’s shores; American pikas climbing high into the mountains in search of colder climes; snow-loving wolverines looking lost amidst greenery; and now dead reindeer, starved to death and buried deep in frozen Siberian snow.
Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, located in northwestern Siberia, has been described as the most productive reindeer-herding region in the world. The animals are well-suited for the freezing temperatures and thick snow. Hundreds of thousands of reindeer are said to roam the area, and are herded by the indigenous Nenets people, who are among the Arctic’s last truly nomadic reindeer herders.
But climate change is posing a serious threat to these animals and the communities that rely on them, according to a study published last week in the journal Biology Letters. Global warming has claimed the lives of at least 80,000 reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula in the past decade, the scientists said. And the risks are only projected to increase in the coming years.
In November 2013, 61,000 reindeer — or almost one-quarter of the local population — starved to death on the peninsula. Researchers said it was the largest regional mortality event of reindeer ever recorded.
And a mass death event in 2006 saw an additional 20,000 reindeer perish from starvation, the scientists said. In both cases, the animals appeared to have died due to abnormally thick layers of snow and ice in their habitat, which made it impossible for them to access the lichen and other vegetation on which they survive.
Without anything to eat, the deer died en masse.
Reindeer can use their feet to chip through thin layers of ice, but researchers said that the ice in 2006 and 2013 was far thicker and harder than the animals could penetrate.
But why exactly did this happen?
The impenetrable snow was a result of retreating sea ice in the adjoining Barents and Kara Seas, according to the researchers.
Caused by unusually warm temperatures, the melting ice produced high levels of evaporation and humidity, which in turn prompted heavy bouts of rain that soaked the snowy ground below (a phenomenon scientists refer to as ROS, or “rain-on-snow” events). The ROS events were followed by a sudden dip in temperature that caused the snow to freeze.
In November 2013, for instance, temperatures plunged to -40 degrees Fahrenheit after a 24-hour rainstorm. Bruce C. Forbes, a researcher at Finland’s University of Lapland and the study’s lead author, told The Washington Post that the rain had “saturated the entire snow column from top to bottom.” The result was a “solid block of ice, frozen to the ground.”
By the time the ice began to thaw the following spring, “the [indigenous] herders who had lost most or all of their animals to starvation were functionally stranded in the tundra,” the scientists wrote. “With no draft reindeer to haul their camps, they resorted to full-time subsistence fishing and borrowed breeding stock to rebuild their herds, a multiyear process.”
The lives of indigenous Nenets people, an ancient nomadic culture, are closely intertwined with their reindeer herds.
Nenets use reindeer hide for their clothes, meat for food, and bones for tools. Nenets herders move seasonally with their reindeer, traveling along migration routes that have existed for hundreds of years.
“The reindeer is our home, our food, our warmth and our transportation,” herder Sergei Hudi told the website Survival.
Rains are predicted to become more frequent and intense in the Yamal Peninsula as Siberia continues to warm, Forbes said. And these weather changes will likely trigger more rain-on-snow events, threatening not just local reindeer populations, but the Nenets herders and communities that rely on the animals to survive.
There are fears that another mass famine could be just around the corner. The Arctic Sea ice extent in October was the lowest of any October ever recorded, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Extent in the Kara Sea remained “especially low” as of early November, the center said.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers reindeer to be vulnerable. In Russia, reindeer populations have declined by more than 20 percent since 1990, the IUCN said last year.