The mass death of reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula in Russia may be related to climate change

(ORDO NEWS) — Thousands of domestic and wild animals died because they could not get to the food, locked under the ice.The Yamal Peninsula urgently needs new ideas to save reindeer husbandry, say members of a scientific expedition who have just returned from a trip to the northern tundra.

“We observed dead deer all over the northern tundra, among them were wild deer, which also suffered from icing and lack of food. The shepherds showed us that their hooves were worn out because they had to dig so much ice, “said researchers Alexandra Terekhina and Alexander Volkovitsky from the Arctic Research Station in Labytnangi, part of the Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology.

The first reports of winter rains, followed by extended periods of extremely cold weather in Yamal, appeared in December 2020.

Alarmed reindeer herders said the unusual weather caused a thick – up to three centimeters – ice cover to form over the lichen.

For reindeer, this means that it is impossible to get to food when grazing in winter pastures, which is why the hooves of the dead animals that scientists saw were so badly worn out.

Some of the domestic animals of the Yamal Peninsula left their traditional winter pastures and followed the wild reindeer in the hope of survival.

By the spring, the number of animals that could die of hunger numbered in the thousands.

‘We are talking about thousands of animals, but there is no exact number of deer killed yet, because reindeer herders still roam the Sakhalinskaya tundra, trying to gather herds together.

In total, there are about 65,000 deer in this northern part of the tundra of the peninsula. Not all of them were on the ice-covered territory, “Alexandra Terekhina explained.

The last catastrophic death of domestic and wild reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula occurred in the winter of 2013-2014, when up to 90,000 animals died of starvation in three districts of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

Environmentalists believe that climate change could be the cause of a deadly combination of weather phenomena such as thin snow cover, followed by winter rains and then days of severe frost.

Our group made several trips to study snow profiles north of Sabetta and in the tundra between Labytnangi and Sabetta. We studied the layers of ice that cover the soil and vegetation and saw that all the dark lichen-topped hills and slopes with little snow were also covered with ice, ”says Alexander Volkovitsky.

Although periodic glaciations are characteristic of the Yamal Peninsula, scientists believe that climate change may affect their frequency and cause them to occur more frequently.

Mass deaths of reindeer caused by a similar combination of rain and cold were recently reported thousands of miles southeast of Yamal on the Kamchatka Peninsula. At least 300 animals died in the northwest of the peninsula because they could not get to food through a layer of ice and snow.

Several more cases of massive deer deaths due to freezing rains have been reported this year in Norway and Sweden. Local authorities have sent tons of fodder to the affected arctic regions and developed government support programs for reindeer herders.

Similar support, such as free delivery of food for reindeer and gasoline for snowmobiles, has been provided to reindeer breeders by the administrations of the Yamal region and the village of Siyakha since December last year.

“We have to come up with radical new solutions.” From the point of view of reindeer herders, the Yamal Peninsula is quite populated, and there are not many free reindeer herding plots. In addition, and perhaps this is the main problem, since Soviet times, the reindeer herders who inhabited the northern, Sakhalinskaya tundra, were limited only to this territory, and in the past they drove herds into forests for the winter, “says Alexandra Terekhina.

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