Freezing Rain Kills Reindeer in Northern Russia, Norway

It has been a disastrous winter for reindeer herders in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Up to 80,000 animals have died of starvation since the fall when freezing rain coated the tundra with an impenetrable layer of ice. The glaze prevented the reindeer from feeding on lichen. They can paw through snow, but the armor-plating of ice is too much for their hooves.

“If this continues, 300 families in Seyakha village will be completely without livestock — all animals will die,” local herder Eiko Serotetto said. Forty tonnes of food have been flown into that part of the Yamal in a last-ditch attempt to alleviate the situation.

Heavy fall rains are usually rare but have become more common in the warming Arctic. The year 2020 was the warmest on record in the Russian North, and several regions had average temperatures up to 7 °С above normal.

The same dire situation has afflicted Sami reindeer herders in northern Norway. “It’s a serious crisis,” says Elisabeth Aspaker, the County Governor of Troms and Finnmark, the most affected region. The Sami are also laying out food pellets for their herds to tide them over until the spring melt.

Freezing rain in the fall that does not melt before winter sets in has always been one of the greatest threats to grazing wildlife across the circumpolar north. A similar event in 1996 decimated the populations of muskoxen and Peary caribou in the Canadian High Arctic.

At that time, some muskoxen died on the sea ice near Bathurst Island, and scientists found them still standing in the snow, leaning against one another. Said Frank Miller, the territorial caribou biologist at the time, “They had apparently tried to dig down to get at some food, and when they discovered there was nothing but sea ice, they just gave up.” A similar catastrophe also occurred in that region in 1973.

Climate change seems to be accelerating the frequency of these events. In Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, the last freezing rain disaster occurred as recently as 2014.