University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland
COPING WITH A WARMING WINTER CLIMATE IN ARCTIC RUSSIA:
PATTERNS OF EXTRIME WEATHER AFFECTING NENETS REINDEER NOMADISM
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.