Hard rain

Indigenous reindeer herders and CU researchers offer lessons from a changing Arctic

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Photo courtesy Roza Laptander.

Rain began to fall on the already snow-covered Yamal Peninsula, an Arctic region of northwest Siberia, in November 2013. Rain fell for the next 24 hours. 

As rain saturated the snow, the temperature dropped below freezing, turning the precipitation into a thick, icy crust. 

The region is home to the Nenets, Indigenous Siberians who are traditionally nomadic reindeer herders. During the winter, reindeer usually subsist on lichens beneath the snow, but in 2013, the hard layer of ice made the surface impenetrable. Unable to access food for the next several months, more than 60,000 reindeer died of starvation and, as a result, many Nenets families lost their livelihoods. 

“For reindeer herders, it’s really a disaster,” Roza Laptander says.

Laptander is a Nenets social anthropologist and researcher born in the tundra of West Siberia. She works with scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at CU Boulder as part of an interdisciplinary, international research team working to better understand how rain-on-snow events affect Arctic communities. 

Though she lives in the Netherlands now, Laptander retains strong ties to Nenets reindeer herding communities. One family she interviewed after the 2013 rain-on-snow event told her they hadn’t realized the sheer number of reindeer they had lost until the snow and ice began to melt in the spring, revealing the carcasses of reindeer. 

The Yamal Peninsula went through a rain-on-snow event in 2013 that killed more than 60,000 reindeer, wiping out income for the Nenets people of the region. Photo courtesy Roza Laptander.

“What we’re increasingly realizing is that this can have a very big impact on the environment and on people and on the animals and on social systems,” says Mark Serreze, NSIDC director and project lead of the Arctic Rain On Snow Study. 

The study covers multiple regions, including Arctic regions of Alaska, Finland and Canada. 

It began in 2020 and is funded by the National Science Foundation through 2024 as part of a larger effort to understand how the Arctic is changing and how communities will respond and adapt. 

The Arctic is the front line of climate change, warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2022 Arctic Report Card. The last seven years were the warmest years on record and precipitation has increased significantly since the 1950s, according to the Arctic Report Card. The past year was the Arctic’s wettest year of the past 72.

“The Arctic is right here in Boulder in many ways, because what happens in the Arctic is not going to stay in the Arctic,” Serreze says. “The Arctic is raising the red flag of climate change and it’s going to affect us all.”

Understanding impacts

It can take years for herding communities to recover from rain-on-snow events as severe as the one in 2013 in Siberia. For herding communities, reindeer are everything. They provide transportation, food, clothing and an income, as many herders sell the meat.  

“If you’re traveling by draft animals that haul the sledges, you need to not just raise new animals for meat and clothing, but you also need to train — it’s like training a dog team to pull the sledge, but not every puppy is a good sled dog. So you’re talking about a multi-year process to rebuild the herd,” says Bruce Forbes, a researcher from University of Lapland and a key partner in the NSIDC study who has worked with Arctic communities for years. 

It’s difficult to put the animals’ importance into words, Laptander says — their value goes beyond the material.

“It’s an important symbol of culture and identity,” she says. “And of course, also, it’s important for this feeling of well being.” Families are deeply connected to their history of being herders, and oral traditions and folklore are tied to the reindeer as well. Losing reindeer in die-off events is devastating. 

The effects of rain-on-snow events go beyond those on reindeer and herding communities and vary by region. Other animals, such as musk oxen and caribou, also suffer, and large die-off events can trigger cascading impacts in the ecosystem. Rain-on-snow events can also trigger slush avalanches, create transportation issues, and cause permafrost to thaw, releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.  

Scientists studying rain-on-snow events hope to provide better predictions so that Indigenous Arctic reindeer herders can avoid large losses of animals. Photo by Roma Serotetto.

“No one community is alike in that they have very unique topography that they travel across, certain places that they go, and that can all play out differently in terms of how conditions change,” says Matthew Druckenmiller, an NSIDC researcher on the team who works in coastal Alaska. 

Bridging knowledge 

Detection and prediction of rain-on-snow events is imperfect, and studying them requires bridging scientific research methods with Indigenous knowledge. 

Satellite imagery and remote sensing each have limitations, but on-the-ground observations from the past and present can fill in gaps. Some of the technology only dates back to around 1979, according to Forbes, but stories of these events have been passed down in communities through oral tradition dating back more than 100 years. “It’s a much richer palette than we would have just fiddling with our various remote sensing tools,” Forbes says. 

Time and access are important factors in building trust between researchers and local communities to create knowledge exchange, but global events have posed significant barriers. At the outset of the project, the pandemic stalled travel to many regions of the study. Then, Russian invasion of Ukraine put a pause on the portion of the study in the Yamal Peninsula for the foreseeable future. 

“The pandemic was an opportunity for a lot of us to pause and reflect on how we are approaching our research,” says Druckenmiller. “Now, we’re trying to regain some of that initial momentum, initial connections,” he says. 

In May, herders and hunters from different regions will come together in Anchorage, Alaska, as part of the project to “interact directly without the filter of a science-based discussion,” Forbes says. It marks an important milestone in the project as the first cross-border workshop. 

“We’re going to be in a new type of Arctic, so the more ways of knowing that can be shared and the ways of thinking, ‘What can you do?’ — scientists shouldn’t be sharing those experiences among ourselves,” Forbes says. “We need to let the conversations happen on their own, by the actual practitioners.” 

Looking ahead

Better understanding of rain-on-snow events can lead to better prediction and the ability to mitigate some of the community impacts.

“Weather forecasting in the Arctic is hard,” Serreze says. “It’s a hard region to deal with. But if you can improve that forecasting, if you can tell someone five days out, ‘We’re probably going to have a big-rain-on snow event,’ that allows some time for preparation.” 

Depending on the size of an event, prediction can allow time for herders to move animals or to bring in supplemental feeding or portable slaughterhouses.

“In an ideal world, if you had a prediction that there’s going to be an event, you can get the slaughterhouses moved up to the herds at risk and then they could be humanely slaughtered and not starve,” Forbes says. “The meat would be saved and the herders would not lose their livelihood and their herd, and they would still remain economically viable.”

Druckenmiller says that while this iteration of the project may not have the time to create and implement types of widespread, on-the-ground systems that are the “gold standard,” he believes it will set the foundation for future projects by building relationships and developing a model for education and knowledge exchange. 

“I think what we can create is a community,” he says, “a practice of sharing what [Indigenous herders] need, what they see, and trying to develop clear communication about what a rainy Arctic means for Arctic peoples, and to do that in a way that sets the foundation for more equitably applied research in the future.”   

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