Skimpy sea ice linked to reindeer starvation on land

Warmer water may trigger inland rain storms, forming ice that animals can’t crack to graze

reindeer rumps

DRIVER’S SIDE VIEW  Reindeer on Russia’s Yamal peninsula give nomadic herders their livelihood from sledge transportation to fur and meat. Changing ice patterns out at sea may disrupt this traditional lifestyle.

Courtesy of B. Forbes

Unseasonable shrinking of sea ice could trigger another peril of climate change: increasing ice-overs on land that starve reindeer and threaten Siberian herders’ way of life.

The worst of these events in the memory of Nenets herders on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula killed 61,000 of 275,000 reindeer in 2013, a blow to the herders’ livelihood that will take years to recoup. Such events have grown more frequent and more severe in the northwest Russian Arctic, says ecologist Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland in Finland.

Weather data and interviews with herders suggest how such disasters occur, Forbes and colleagues propose November 16 in Biology Letters. When variations in the currents of the North Atlantic bring unusual warmth to the Barents Sea, ice forming there and in the Kara Sea in fall and winter can retreat instead of grow. This retreat leaves open water that can provide more moisture to storms blowing inland. Rain drenches snow, which freezes into a thick layer of ice that starves the reindeer because they can’t graze on forage under the snow.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

More Stories from Science News on Animals