Here's why 80,000 Arctic reindeer starved to death
Saturday, December 3, 2016, 2:19 PM - As climate change continues to impact the Arctic, its catastrophic effects on species that call the region home are starting to produce some gruesome numbers -- with the Canadian north also at risk.
The latest: Scientists studying reindeer herds in Russia's Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic say changes in weather patterns in November accounted for at least 81,000 reindeer deaths in the region -- 20,000 in 2006 and 61,000 in 2013.
The researchers blame what they call autumn/winter rain-on-snow events, which are becoming more frequent in the Arctic. Essentially, lingering warmth late in the year helped fuel heavy rain or freezing rain, which coated the landscape with thick ice, keeping reindeer from reaching the lichen and other plants that make up the species' food supply.
"Reindeer are used to sporadic ice cover, and adult males can normally smash through ice around 2 centimetres thick," lead researcher Bruce Forbes of Finland's University of Lapland told the New Scientist. "But in 2006 and 2013, the ice was several tens of centimetres thick."
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Such unusual rain events could also be linked to sea ice, or rather the lack thereof.
Both the years covered by the study featured less sea-ice cover over the nearby Arctic ocean, leading to higher evaporation and humidity, fuel for storm clouds. After the rains had ended, temperatures plunged rapidly, leaving the landscape coated in thick ice that lasted months.
Aside from the blow to the ecosystem, many of the region's inhabitants, such as Nenets people, rely on reindeer herds for their livelihoods, making it an economic issue as well.
"If we see such events again this year, it could mean that they’re becoming more frequent," Forbes told the magazine. "Now is the risk window, and if it happens again, it will be a major problem for traditional reindeer herders still suffering from losses in 2013."
The Russian reindeer study appears in the journal Biology Letters.
In Canada, the reindeer's cousin, the caribou, is also facing an uncertain future due to climate change.
Barren-ground caribou in particular are struggling with reduced sea ice threatening their migration routes, and are also vulnerable to similar rainfall events that could leave the ground frozen, cutting off access to food, according to WWF-Canada.
That organization says most of the 13 known barren-ground caribou herds in the Canadian Arctic are in decline, some by as much as 98 per cent.
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