“Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer / Felt the winters getting hot / He looked around and saw that / His Arctic home had gone to pot…”
In the spirit of the upcoming season, heads are likely filled with thoughts of gingerbread men, chestnuts, carolers, stockings hanging from an open fireplace and reindeer – 80,000 sad, starving reindeer.
Anyone who still doubts global warming should direct their attention back to 2006 when over 60,000 reindeer on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula died from starvation in what’s been called one of the highest “mortality episodes” ever recorded. 2013 saw 20,000 additional deaths, bringing the total to more than 80,000 within a seven-year period.
Scientists blame extreme weather. Nasty combinations of sea ice retreats, warmer temperatures and heavy rains battering the Arctic mainland have ultimately contributed to snow too heavy and dense for the reindeer to survive. In each instance, the snow covering the plants and lichen that the reindeer feed on became so compact that food sources were virtually inaccessible. Unable to eat, the creatures starved and perished. The circumstances are both morbid and frightening, and give rise to serious questions regarding our ailing environment.
Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland in Finland explains, “Reindeer are used to sporadic ice cover, and adult males can normally smash through ice around two centimeters thick, but in 2006 and 2013, the ice was several tens of centimeters thick.”
Forbes claims these winters likely brought “rain-on-snow,” referred to as ROS. During violent storms, rainfall typically hardens into a course, icy layer. Each time, the ground of the Yamal Peninsula likely transformed into a dense, frozen barrier that suppressed everything underneath and prevented the animals from properly feeding.
“Herders have observed about once per decade these events are intensive and extensive enough to lead to starvation of animals, when herds cannot find soft snow,” he adds.
“The interaction between Arctic ocean temperatures and the loss of ice formation leading to continuing record minimums is clearly a climate change signal,” states geography research professor Thomas Mote.
Under normal circumstances, warmer weather actually serves a profound purpose for spots like Yamal by bringing more ice inward from neighboring coasts, but as temperatures increase throughout the Arctic, nearby sea ice fractures from waves and abrasive winds. The warm, Atlantic water beneath the ice is uncovered, leading to balmier weather and subsequent rainfall which likely birthed the frozen tundra that killed the animals.
“As the relatively warm water becomes exposed, vapor forms and air humidity increases,” Forbes says. “The more extensive the open water (or with jumbled, fractured ice in loose concentrations), the more moisture available to increase atmospheric humidity.”
2016 has been particularly unkind to reindeer. August saw the deaths of over 300 animals following severe and unusual lightning strikes in Central Norway. Even more disturbing were the 2,000 anthrax deaths last July when a carcass that had perished from the disease decades before thawed out due to warming temperatures and endangered local wildlife.
Sadly, occurrences like these are growing more common as the Earth heats. Alaskan coastlines were decorated with over 100,000 deceased seabirds last January after temperatures in the Pacific Ocean were recorded as being seven degrees higher than average. Biologist David Irons says it’s one of the largest die-offs he’s ever seen, and that the birds likely starved to death after the waters emaciated fish populations, their primary source of food.
“The fish they eat tend to have a narrow band of water temperatures they can live in,” he explains. “If the temperature gets too warm or too cold, the fish disappear.”