Coping with a warming winter climate in Arctic Russia: patterns of extreme weather affecting Nenets reindeer nomadism

Coping with a warming winter climate in Arctic Russia: patterns of extreme weather affecting Nenets reindeer nomadism


Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Rovaniemi Finland

Sea ice loss is accelerating in the Barents and Kara Seas in the northwest region of Arctic Russia. Assessing potential drivers and linkages between sea ice retreat/thinning and maintenance of the region’s ancient and unique social-ecological systems is a pressing task. Tundra nomadism remains a vitally important livelihood for indigenous Nenets and their large reindeer herds. Warming summer air temperatures in recent decades have been linked to more frequent and sustained summer high-pressure systems over West Siberia, but not to sea ice retreat. At the same time, autumn/winter rain-on-snow events across the region have become more frequent and intense. Here we review evidence for autumn atmospheric warming and precipitation increases over Arctic coastal lands in proximity to Barents and Kara sea ice loss. Two major rain-on-snow events during November 2006 and 2013 led to massive winter reindeer mortality episodes on Yamal Peninsula. Fieldwork with migratory Nenets herders has revealed that the ecological and socio-economic impacts from the catastrophic 2013 event will unfold for years to come. The suggested link between sea ice loss, more frequent and intense rain-on-snow events and high reindeer mortality has serious implications for the future of tundra Nenets nomadism. Nenets oral histories documented that smaller, more nimble privately owned herds fared better than larger collective herds. This strategy has already worked well for dealing with encroaching infrastructure. If Barents and Kara sea ice continues to decline, better forecasts of autumn ice retreat coupled with additional mobile slaughterhouses could help to buffer against reindeer starvation following future rain-on-snow events. Even a few days of early warning could make a critical difference. Realizing mutual coexistence of tundra nomadism within the Arctic’s largest natural gas complex under a warming climate will require meaningful consultation, as well as ready access to – and careful interpretation of – real-time meteorological and sea ice data and modelling.



Research Professor Bruce C. Forbes (PhD Geography, 1993, McGill University) leads the Global Change Research Group at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. He is also a Docent in Plant Ecology/ Biogeography at the Faculty of Science, University of Oulu, Finland. Prof. Forbes has a background in applied ecology and geography in northern high latitudes, with special emphasis on permafrost regions. His experience is circumpolar, encompassing studies of rapid land use and climate change in Alaska, the Canadian High Arctic, various regions of northern Russia, and northernmost Fennoscandia. His approach is strongly interdisciplinary and participatory, aiming for the co-production of knowledge, particularly concerning local and regional indigenous stakeholder-driven research questions. He has conducted fieldwork annually in the Arctic for the past 31 years. For the past 15 years his research has focused on: (1) resilience in social-ecological systems in close cooperation with indigenous Nenets and Sámi reindeer herders; and (2) analyses of proxy data sources for climate change, including extreme weather events, and vegetation productivity in Northwest Eurasian tundra ecosystems

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