Friday 25 November 2016

Mass starvation looming for Siberian reindeer

One of the world’s largest concentration of reindeer is to be found in the Yamal Peninsula in northwestern Siberia. A new report presents worrying evidence that the reindeer are threatened with starvation.

In the region of Russia, hundreds of thousands of reindeer are to be found. Many are herded by the indigenous Nenets people. For 2016-2017 a new report suggests that many of the reindeer are threatened due to a scarcity of food.

The report comes from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and it has declared the reindeer to be vulnerable. Since 1990 there has been a steady decline in the population, with a 20 percent decline (around 80,000 animals) over the past twenty-five years.  This is due to scarcity of food and the root cause is climate change.

The largest decline occurred in 2013, when 61,000 reindeer starved to death on the peninsula. This occurred due to atypically thickly layers of snow and ice blocking and obscuring access to food - lichen and other vegetation.

The cause of the unusual ice and snow was attributed to retreating sea ice in the adjoining Barents and Kara Seas, which adjoin the peninsula. The researchers put the sequence of events into a flow diagram, which has been summarized by Laboratory Roots as:

Warming → Sea ice decline → Increased precipitation and winter temperatures → [Rain-on-snow] events → Reindeer mortality.

Essentially, warming temperature causes the melting of ice, which leads to high levels of evaporation and humidity. These temperature effects cause increased rainfall. The rain soaks the snowy ground, and when this is followed by a fall in temperature, the snow freezes leading to a thick layer of ice forming. The layer can prove too thick for the reindeer to smash through.

According to the lead researcher, Dr. Bruce Forbes: “Reindeer are used to sporadic ice cover, and adult males can normally smash through ice around 2 centimeters thick. But in 2006 and 2013, the ice was several tens of centimeters thick”

The concern is that a similar event will occur this coming winter, based on climate predictions. This is based on reducing ice in both the Arctic Sea and the Kara Sea, as collated by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is linked to the University of Lapland in Finland.

The findings are published in journal Biology Letters. The paper is titled “Sea ice, rain-on-snow and tundra reindeer nomadism in Arctic Russia.”

Posted by Dr. Tim Sandle

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