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Tens of thousands of reindeer are starving to death because heavy rain that later freezes is locking their winter fodder in a thick ice crust. This rising mortality rate also threatens an ancient nomadic culture that depends on the reindeer, says a new study.

Reindeer deaths in the Arctic linked with retreating sea ice. Maksimilian

Image: www.shutterstock.com

Scientists interviewed nomadic reindeer herders in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug of West Siberia, the world’s most productive reindeer herding region, to examine how global warming is affecting their way of life. While rain on snow does not cause problems in spring, it can be catastrophic for reindeer in the autumn when rain turns to an ice crust as plummeting normal 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 in the coastal mainland in northwest Russia with sea ice loss in the adjoining Barents and Kara seas. The findings are published in the journal, Biology Letters.

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 are now 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 thinning during early November.

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