Mass Reindeer Deaths Linked to Extreme Climate Events on Yamal

November 16, 2016 • Philip BurgessBlog, Challenges, Reindeer, Reindeer Herders
Dead Reindeer, death due to extreme climate event. Photo: Roma Serotetto

Dead Reindeer, death due to extreme climate event. Photo: Roma Serotetto

From the press release announcing a new paper entitled ‘Sea ice, rain-on-snow and tundra reindeer nomadism in Arctic Russia’ published today in the journal, Biology Letters. You can read the article in full here.

Scientists have interviewed nomadic reindeer herders in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug of West Siberia, the world’s most productive reindeer herding region, to look at how global warming is affecting their way of life. While rain-on-snow generally does not cause problems in spring, it can be catastrophic for reindeer in the autumn when rain turns to an ice crust as normal freezing temperatures return. This crust, often several centimetres thick,
prevents the reindeer from feeding on fodder beneath the snow throughout the winter
months. Two extreme weather events in 2006 and 2013 caused mass starvation among the
reindeer herds, and researchers for the first time have linked these extreme weather events
on the coastal mainland in northwest Russia with sea ice loss in the adjoining Barents and
Kara seas.

The most recent rain-on-snow event of November 2013 resulted in 61 000 reindeer deaths,
about 22% out of 275 000 reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula, says the paper, which warns
that these events seem to be increasing in severity.

In this paper, the scientists combined empirical data and modelling for major extreme weather events in 2006 and 2013 to find that the likely trigger was brief periods of Barents and Kara sea ice retreat during early November.

Dead Reindeer, death due to extreme climate event. Photo: Roma Serotetto

Dead Reindeer, death due to extreme climate event. Photo: Roma Serotetto

The researchers interviewed 60 herders and administrators in the region between March
2014 and April 2016, collecting detailed oral histories of how their experiences and herding
movements have changed over several decades. Based on the herders’ evidence, the paper
says these extreme weather events occur about once every decade. The heavy ice crusts
that form after the rain on mainland tundra reindeer rangelands are having long-term and
serious effects on the indigenous tribe of around 6,000 Yamal Nenets, who are among the
last truly nomadic reindeer herders in the Arctic. Hard and thick ice crusts make it extremely
difficult for reindeer to dig through the snow, and the longer that such crusts persist through
the winter, the weaker animals become.

“In a normal year, crusted snow patches are common, but herds can be relatively easily led
to nearby areas with softer snow”, says Research Professor Bruce Forbes from the Arctic
Centre at the University of Lapland. “The reason the 2013 event was so catastrophic was
that heavy rains saturated much of the snow cover from top to bottom, so when air
temperatures plummeted the pastures were frozen beneath a thick, heavy layer of ice. This
left animals locked completely out of pastures across the entire southern Yamal Peninsula,
an area covering some 27 000 km2.”

The paper describes how the Yamal Nenets migrate year round, herding semi-domesticated
reindeer across distances of up to 1200 km annually. Reindeer are an important livelihood
and a fundamental part of their ancient and unique culture, says the paper. Researchers
combined archival data from various satellite sensors with climate modelling to characterise
two specific time windows: 5-10 November 2006 and 5-10 November 2013. Long-term
averages of sea ice and atmospheric conditions reveal that during both periods, the sea ice
coverage and concentration in the Barents and Kara sea ice were anomalously low, while
atmospheric humidity was anomalously high. The herders reported 24 hours of rain on 8
November 2013, swiftly followed by freezing temperatures, which lasted throughout the rest
of the winter. Those who lost their reindeer through starvation have resorted to full-time
fishing in situ, while also borrowing breeding stock to rebuild their herds to migrate.

The research was part of the RISES and HUMANOR projects funded, respectively by the
Academy of Finland and JPI Climate, and led by the Arctic Centre at the University of

The research team were from University of Lapland, University of Oxford, University of
Eastern Finland, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Seoul National University,
University of Maryland, University of Colorado, University College London, and Vienna
University of Technology.