New Delhi: Reindeer herds in western Siberia went through a mass starvation in 2006 and 2013 due to two extreme episodes of icing and according to scientists, the reason behind both is the thinning sea ice and higher humidity in the Arctic Barents and Kara seas as more water escapes into the atmosphere.
The unusual weather due to global warming, killed the usual food supply of lichen and other vegetation.
“Reindeer are used to sporadic ice cover, and adult males can normally smash through ice around 2 centimetres thick,” says Bruce Forbes at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, who led the study. “But in 2006 and 2013, the ice was several tens of centimetres thick,” the New Scientist reported.
“If we see such events again this year, it could mean that they’re becoming more frequent,” says Forbes. “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.”
During 2013, 61,000 reindeer died – more than a fifth of the total Yamal Peninsula population of 275,000.
The findings of such events that, according to the researchers, were increasing in severity, are reported in the journal Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
During both, sea ice coverage and concentration in the Barents and Kara seas were especially low while atmospheric humidity was unusually high.
The herders reported 24 hours of rain on November 8, 2013 swiftly followed by freezing winter temperatures.
Those who lost their reindeer through starvation were forced to resort to fishing, and borrowed breeding stock to rebuild their herds., according to a report in the Daily Mail.
The New Scientist also reported that a repeat of such conditions this year could mean a double blow for reindeer and herders on the peninsula, because a huge cull of 250,00 reindeer is planned this Christmas to deal with claimed overgrazing issues and stamp out an anthrax outbreak in the animals.
In August, an outbreak of anthrax was credited to the thawing of an anthrax-infected reindeer corpse, which claimed the life of a child along with leaving 90 people hospitalised.
This resulted in the gradual spread of anthrax among other reindeer and ultimately, to herders and their families, leading the Russian authorities to order emergency culling and vaccination of reindeer in the region.
Other Arctic researchers said the findings reinforced concerns about the potential impacts of reduced ice cover on wildlife and traditional Arctic communities.
According to the New Scientist, “This study serves to underline the fragility of Arctic ecosystems, and how sensitive Earth’s climate can be to changes in ice cover,” says Ed Blockley, lead scientist of the Polar Climate Group at the UK Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter.
“Sea ice is an important component of the climate system because it regulates the transfer of heat and fresh water between the ocean and atmosphere,” says Blockley. “Although most notable in summer, Arctic sea-ice cover is declining in all seasons, and in the winter this decline is highest in the Barents and Kara seas in the Atlantic.”