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

Unseaonable shrinking of sea ice could be a trigger for another peril of climate change: increasing ice-overs that starve reindeer and threaten Siberian herders’ way of life.

The worst of these events in the memory of nomadic Nenets herders on Russia’s Yamal peninsula destroyed 61,000 of their 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 Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland in Finland.

Reviewing weather data and interviewing herders suggests how such ice disasters occur, Forbes and his colleagues propose November 16 in Biology Letters. When variations in the currents of the North Atlantic bring unusual warmth all the way over to the Barents Sea, ice forming there and in the Kara Sea in autumn and winter can retreat instead of grow. This leaves open water to feed 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 break through to graze on forage under the snow. Watching sea ice might now give herders some warning of a looming threat to their herds.

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.

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