80,000 reindeer starve to death in Siberia

Climate change continues to pose a serious threat to the Arctic’s  animals and this time it is Santa’s sleigh pullers in danger, reported by a study published in the journal Biology Letters. It may appear illogical that increased global temperatures can lead to more arctic ice. However, climate change is ultimately causing an increase in the rain during the autumn months, which quickly freezes.

Researchers have concluded that the rain is a result of the retreating sea ice in the Barents and Kara Seas caused by increasing temperatures, ultimately causing “rain-on-snow” (ROS) events  as described by author Bruce C. Forbes.

This quickly builds up, making the icy layer several centimetres deeper. In order for reindeers to consume lichen and other vegetation necessary to their survival, they must break the snow and ice using their hooves. The numbers of reindeer have been drastically affected due their inability to break this impenetrable barrier.

In November 2013, scientists from the University of Oxford found that over 60,000 reindeer died on the Yamal Peninsula in Serbia. This is the most significant “mortality episode” of reindeer recorded in this area. Rain fell constantly for 24 hours at the beginning of November, just before temperatures dramatically dropped until spring 2014, leaving the Yamal Peninsula covered in ice.

During this time, scientists recorded that: “the private herders who had lost most or all of their animals to starvation were functionally stranded in the tundra.

With no draft reindeer to haul their camps, they resorted to full-time subsistence fishing and borrowed breeding stock to rebuild their herds.”

Forbes has used mathematical models and predicted that the increase in rain will continue and become more powerful as the global temperature increases.

“We are recommending in the near future that mobile slaughterhouses could be deployed in time to the herds at risk out on the tundra” in order for the reindeer to be “slaughtered humanely.”

Forbes reports: “Herders have observed that about once per decade these events are intensive and extensive enough to lead to starvation of animals, when herds cannot find soft diggable snow.” Although occurring once a decade, in combination with other events, could it cause a nightmare before Christmas?

Adding to the death toll, in July 2016, faced with a disastrous anthrax epidemic which killed a 12-year-old and infected 100 natives, Serbian government proposed the killing of 250,000 reindeer. Only a month later, more than 300 reindeer in central Norway were killed by lightening. It was reported “long-term and serious effects” on the Yamal Nenet tribe of 6,000 nomadic reindeer herders have resulted from decreasing reindeer numbers and that many have resorted to fishing. With risks only increasing in the coming years, what will this mean for both the populations of reindeer and natives?


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September 2021
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