Reindeer herders and scientists collaborate to understand Arctic warming

Predicting rain-on-snow events that turn tundra into ice could save reindeer and livelihoods

Roza Laptander leads a string of four reindeer across the snow in Siberia. Other reindeer and another reindeer herder are visible behind her.

Roza Laptander leads reindeer across the tundra in Western Siberia. A linguistic anthropologist originally from the region, Laptander has periodically embedded with the region’s Indigenous reindeer herders, who can travel hundreds of kilometers every winter in search of lichen for their animals.

Roza Laptander

The spring 2014 annual reindeer festival in Yar-Sale, a rural town on the Yamal Peninsula in Western Siberia, was a grim affair. A rainstorm followed by a deep freeze the previous November had turned the normally snow-covered tundra into an ice shield. Reindeer could not paw through the thick ice to access lichen, their primary food source. In a region where winter temperatures can plunge below –50° Celsius, that ground remained frozen months later. Tens of thousands of reindeer had already died of starvation. Thousands more were on the brink of death.

A prominent reindeer herder named Vasily Serotetto approached a group of scientists. Could they predict when such an event — known as seradt in the Indigenous Nenets language — might occur, he asked. Even a few days advance notice would have enabled mobile slaughterhouse operators to come in and humanely kill the animals. And the animal meat and fur would not have gone to waste.

To the scientists in attendance, the request felt like a call to action. Serotetto was basically saying: “You scientists, what’s causing this?” says Bruce Forbes, a biogeographer at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland.

The scientists possessed a trove of satellite images of the Russian Arctic to start tackling that question, Forbes knew. But without more detailed, on-the-ground information from local inhabitants, such as the timing of the event and where it occurred, they did not know where to begin looking in that massive amount of data.

Now the two groups have joined forces to try to understand a phenomenon that has crucial implications for a people’s way of life, as well as a world at large grappling with climate change. Besides preventing herbivores from accessing foliage underneath the ice, rain on snow has been shown to trigger slush avalanches, create surface conditions that warm permafrost, change soil and vegetation conditions and disrupt transportation and communications.

While that paired knowledge helped unravel the many factors that caused the deadly icing in 2013, finding a way to predict such events remains a puzzle.

Power of partnership

The idea that Indigenous and scientific communities can help each other has been gaining prominence in recent years. Forbes is part of a group of interdisciplinary scientists involved in the Arctic Rain on Snow Study, or AROSS, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. The team is studying what causes rain on snow in the Arctic and how such events affect local wildlife, ecology and communities.

And in September, NSF launched a research hub, the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science. That $30-million, five-year effort to bridge Western and Indigenous ways of knowing is based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Indigenous people, such as the Siberian reindeer herders, have a deep understanding of their local environs, says linguistic anthropologist Roza Laptander, an AROSS team member originally from the Yamal Peninsula. Laptander, of both the University of Lapland and the University of Hamburg in Germany, has periodically embedded with herding communities since 2006.

Laptander’s research shows how ecological knowledge is encoded in the Nenets language. For instance, the first snow of the season is often soft and deep, or idebya syra, Laptander reported in September in Ecology and Society. That snow is difficult for the reindeer to walk in. Snow with ice granules, or inggyem’ syra, indicates high-quality lichen. Seradt, caused by rain falling on snow or unfrozen ground and then freezing solid, is to be feared. The word stems from serad’’, which translates to both rain and misfortune.

Reindeer nibble lichen at the edge of a snow-covered area in Siberia. A herder, other reindeer and sleds are visible behind the grazing reindeer.
Every winter, reindeer herders migrate across Western Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula in search of the animals’ main food source, lichen. Warming Arctic temperatures have increased the likelihood that rain will fall on snow, and then freezing temperatures will bury lichen under thick ice — which occurred in 2013. That winter, over 61,000 reindeer starved to death.Roza Laptander

Historically, the herders could rely on their in-depth knowledge of varying types of snow and ice, along with an ability to read weather patterns and animal behavior, to gauge the likelihood of a difficult winter, Laptander says. But a rapidly warming Arctic is scrambling those signals. “Their traditional ways of predicting weather do not work anymore,” she says.

Scientists, meanwhile, often look to understand how warming-fueled changes to the Arctic climate, such as thinning sea ice and melting permafrost, are affecting climate change and weather patterns on a global scale (SN: 8/31/23). Knowing where to zoom in and what to zoom in on to help local communities requires those communities’ input.

“[Scientists] probably wouldn’t even know one type of snow is different than another. We might just look and say, ‘There’s snow here,’” says Dylan Davis, a remote sensing archaeologist at Columbia University who is not involved with this project. “Local communities and Indigenous communities that live with this every day, they’re going to be able to see things that we don’t.”

Prediction challenges

That’s what happened at Yar-Sale. Forbes told Serotetto that scientists might be able to sort out what caused the 2013–14 seradt, but they needed an idea of where to begin. Serotetto pointed to a map. In a typical winter, herders migrate from north to south. When the rain-on-snow event hit, many herders were already too far south to turn back or doubted the severity of the disaster. Serotetto, a herder with decades of experience, was able to push north. He discovered that the northern peninsula was relatively unscathed.

Serotetto drew a line on the map demarcating where he had come across the edge of the ice shield. When scientists pulled up satellite images from that November day, Forbes says, “the line was exactly where he drew it.” 

That information enabled Laptander, Forbes and others on the team to begin investigating the unique confluence of sea ice levels, snow versus ice cover on land, air temperatures and precipitation that contributed to the November 2013 icing event in southern Yamal.

Melting sea ice in the Barents and Kara seas releases humid air into the atmosphere, the team found (SN: 11/15/16). That humid air can blow onto the land as rain when temperatures rise above freezing.

The answer to Serotetto’s question, though, is far from resolved. Predicting such events remains extremely challenging, Forbes says. For instance, in 2018, the North Atlantic was open water all the way to the North Pole, and rain-on-snow seemed almost inevitable. But such an event did not occur. How did conditions differ between 2013 and 2018?

Efforts to answer that question are currently on hold. First, the pandemic thwarted travel and then, in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Climate research in the Russian Arctic has come to a virtual standstill, Forbes says. “Suddenly, half the Arctic is a no-go.”  

But the work in Yamal has snowballed to other Arctic regions, Forbes says. For instance, on a trip to Greenland last year, sheep farmers and reindeer herders told Forbes that they had just dealt with their first serious rain-on-snow event the previous winter. Forbes and his colleagues are hoping to apply what they learned in Yamal to better understand that event. “Now we have a data-sharing network with Indigenous informants across Arctic North America,” Forbes says.

Sujata Gupta is the social sciences writer and is based in Burlington, Vt.

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