How a rainstorm killed 61,000 reindeer

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In 2013, 61,000 reindeer died of starvation on a remote peninsula in Siberia, upending the livelihoods of reindeer herders in the region.

The vegetation that the reindeer usually eat was staring them in the face, just beyond reach. Instead of resting under a blanket of soft snow, the reindeer's food was encased in a solid layer of ice, the product of unseasonable rains that fell in November of that year.

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A reindeer is seen at a private owned reserve in the village of Ana in western Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon on October 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: A reindeer outside the King Power Stadium ahead of the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at the King Power Stadium on November 28th , 2015 in Leicester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)
Reindeer are seen at a private owned reserve in the village of Ana in western Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon on October 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A reindeer is seen at a private owned reserve in the village of Ana in western Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon on October 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A reindeer is seen at a private owned reserve in the village of Ana in western Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon on October 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Mongolia-environment-rights-animal-lifestyle by Khaliun Bayartsogt This photo taken on September 19, 2015 shows 11-year old Bayandalai holding a reindeer at a Dukha camp in the East Taiga region in Khovsgol province, in northern Mongolia. For thousands of years Mongolia's Dukha ethnic minority - known as Tsaatan in Mongolian - have depended on their reindeer herds to survive the bitter winters, but now their nomadic way of life is threatened by new government restrictions introduced on environmental grounds, they say. AFP PHOTO / Greg BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: A reindeer is seen outside the stadium prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge on December 19, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
A reindeer is seen at a private owned reserve in the village of Ana in western Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon on October 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Mongolia-environment-rights-animal-lifestyle by Khaliun Bayartsogt This photo taken on September 19, 2015 shows 11-year old Bayandalai holding a reindeer at a Dukha camp in the East Taiga region in Khovsgol province, in northern Mongolia. For thousands of years Mongolia's Dukha ethnic minority - known as Tsaatan in Mongolian - have depended on their reindeer herds to survive the bitter winters, but now their nomadic way of life is threatened by new government restrictions introduced on environmental grounds, they say. AFP PHOTO / Greg BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Mongolia-environment-rights-animal-lifestyle by Khaliun Bayartsogt This photo taken on September 19, 2015 shows 11-year old Bayandalai holding a reindeer at a Dukha camp in the East Taiga region in Khovsgol province, in northern Mongolia. For thousands of years Mongolia's Dukha ethnic minority - known as Tsaatan in Mongolian - have depended on their reindeer herds to survive the bitter winters, but now their nomadic way of life is threatened by new government restrictions introduced on environmental grounds, they say. AFP PHOTO / Greg BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Mongolia-environment-rights-animal-lifestyle by Khaliun Bayartsogt This photo taken on September 18, 2015 shows reindeer foraging for food in a forest near a Dukha camp in the East Taiga region in Khovsgol province, in northern Mongolia. For thousands of years Mongolia's Dukha ethnic minority - known as Tsaatan in Mongolian - have depended on their reindeer herds to survive the bitter winters, but now their nomadic way of life is threatened by new government restrictions introduced on environmental grounds, they say. AFP PHOTO / Greg BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Mongolia-environment-rights-animal-lifestyle by Khaliun Bayartsogt This photo taken on September 17, 2015 shows reindeer resting after feeding at a Dukha camp in the East Taiga region in Khovsgol province, in northern Mongolia. For thousands of years Mongolia's Dukha ethnic minority - known as Tsaatan in Mongolian - have depended on their reindeer herds to survive the bitter winters, but now their nomadic way of life is threatened by new government restrictions introduced on environmental grounds, they say. AFP PHOTO / Greg BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
SVALBARD AND JAN MAYEN ISLANDS - 2015/07/16: A male Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) is grazing on the tundra at Kapp Lee on the Island of Edgeoya, Svalbard, Norway. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
THE CAIRNGORMS NATIONAL PARK, SCOTLAND - DECEMBER 14: Jess Greaves a reindeer herder at the Cairgorm Herd feeds the deer at The Cairngorms National Park on December 14, 2014 in North East Scotland. Reindeer were introduced to Scotland in 1952 by Swedish Sami reindeer herder, Mikel Utsi. Starting with just a few reindeer, the herd has now grown in numbers over the years and is currently at about 130 by controlling the breeding. The herd rages on 2,500 hectares of hill ground between 450 and 1,309 meters and stay above the tree line all year round regardless of the weather conditions. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
THE CAIRNGORMS NATIONAL PARK, SCOTLAND - DECEMBER 14: Reindeer at the Cairgorm Herd wait to be fed on December 14, 2014 in The Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. Reindeer were introduced to Scotland in 1952 by Swedish Sami reindeer herder, Mikel Utsi. Starting with just a few reindeer, the herd has now grown in numbers over the years and is currently at about 130 by controlling the breeding. The herd rages on 2,500 hectares of hill ground between 450 and 1,309 meters and stay above the tree line all year round regardless of the weather conditions. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
DENALI NATIONAL PARK, AK - MAY 14: A caribou looks around on May 14, 2014 in Denali National Park, Alaska. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
AVIEMORE, SCOTLAND - DECEMBER 23: Eve Grayson, a Reindeer herder of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, feeds the deer on December 23, 2013 in Aviemore, Scotland. Reindeer were introduced to Scotland in 1952 by Swedish Sami reindeer herder, Mikel Utsi. Starting with just a few reindeer, the herd has now grown in numbers over the years and is currently at about 130 by controlling the breeding. The herd rages on 2,500 hectares of hill ground between 450 and 1,309 meters and stay above the tree line all year round regardless of the weather conditions. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
In this photo taken on Sunday, March 15, 2015, a man walks past reindeer at the Reindeer Herder's Day in the city of Nadym, in Yamal-Nenets Region, 2500 km (about 1553 miles) northeast of Moscow, Russia. The Reindeer Herder's Day is celebrated annually in Russiaâs Yamal-Nenets region in the Arctic and for the Nenets people, it offers a chance to show their prowess in wrestling, high jumps and other traditional sports, but, above all, reindeer races. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
An unnamed female reindeer, left, and Miles, a male reindeer, are shown on the Living Roof at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011. The female will be named through a naming contest. The reindeer will be a part of the Academy's holiday program that will be exhibited until January 16, 2012. The Living Roof Project is an ongoing citizen science program designed to give community members an opportunity to learn about the Academyâs unique roof ecosystem while contributing to important baseline data regarding the many plants, birds, and arthropods that inhabit and utilize the Living Roofâs 2.5 acres of green space. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Wildren (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) Rudolf traegt sein stolzes Geweih im herbstlichen Sonnenschein am Mittwoch, 11. Oktober 2006 im Basler Zoo. (AP Photo/KEYSTONE/Patrick Straub) Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) Rudolf shows its deer heads on its enclosure in the zoological garden in Basel, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006. (AP Photo/KEYSTONE/Patrick Straub)
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In a study published in Biology Letters, researchers report a possible cause. In 2013, there was an unusually low level of sea ice in the Barents Sea (near the Yamal Peninsula where the deaths occurred). The interaction of the warmer waters coupled with unusually warm air over land caused a huge rainstorm. The rain fell on the softly driven snow, then froze as the temperatures dropped, creating an impenetrable block of ice that even reindeer hooves couldn't get through.

For the researchers looking at the data, the satellites tell the story. By looking at different data from weather and climate satellites monitoring the region during the 2013 event, they can see exactly the conditions that caused the disaster. "We can see the wind blowing onshore just as the air is warming, just as the ice is retreating and just as the humidity is shooting up," Bruce Forbes, an author of the paper says.

The reindeer were semi-domesticated, traveling in herds with the nomadic Nenets, an indigenous group that regularly takes their reindeer over 700 miles from summer grazing grounds to winter pastures. The Nenets rely on the reindeer for meat, fur, and transportation, with the reindeer dragging their possessions along the way. The herds form the economic backbone of the Nenets society. When tens of thousands of animals starved, it was not only a loss of life, but the loss of a way of life.

"So many herders lost so many of their animals and some lost all their animals," Forbes says. "If they lost all their animals, they are effectively stranded out on the tundra until they can rebuild their herd. They are functionally full-time fishermen now."

Related: Global warming, climate change impacting Patagonia's massive glaciers

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Global warming, climate change impacting Patagonia's massive glaciers
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 29: Ice calves from the Northern wall of the Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, on November 29, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Certain areas of glacial ice take on a bluish hue due to light refraction. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the third largest ice field in the world. The majority of the almost 50 large glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park have been retreating during the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in ice caps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 28: Runoff cascades from the edge of Heim glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest ice field in the world, on November 28, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. The majority of the almost fifty large glaciers in the park have been retreating over the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in icecaps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 27: The Perito Moreno glacier stands in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest ice field in the world, on November 27, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Certain areas of glacial ice take on a blueish hue due to light refraction. The majority of the almost fifty large glaciers in the park have been retreating over the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in icecaps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 28: Runoff cascades from the edge of Heim glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest ice field in the world, on November 28, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. The majority of the almost fifty large glaciers in the park have been retreating over the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in icecaps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 27: The Perito Moreno glacier stands in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest ice field in the world, on November 27, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. The majority of the almost fifty large glaciers in the park have been retreating over the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in icecaps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 29: The Perito Moreno glacier stands in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, on November 29, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Certain areas of glacial ice take on a bluish hue due to light refraction. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the third largest ice field in the world. The majority of the almost 50 large glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park have been retreating during the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in ice caps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 28: An iceberg broken off from a melting glacier floats in Lake Argentino, which holds runoff water from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest ice field in the world, on November 28, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. The majority of the almost fifty large glaciers in the surrounding Los Glaciares National Park have been retreating over the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in icecaps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 29: Melting glacial ice floats in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, on November 29, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Certain areas of glacial ice take on a bluish hue due to light refraction. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the third largest ice field in the world. The majority of the almost 50 large glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park have been retreating during the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in ice caps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 28: An iceberg broken off from a melting glacier floats in Lake Argentino, which holds runoff water from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest ice field in the world, on November 28, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Certain areas of glacial ice take on a blueish hue due to light refraction. The majority of the almost fifty large glaciers in the surrounding Los Glaciares National Park have been retreating over the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in icecaps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 29: Melted glacial ice floats in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, on November 29, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Certain areas of glacial ice take on a bluish hue due to light refraction. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the third largest ice field in the world. The majority of the almost 50 large glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park have been retreating during the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in ice caps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 29: The Perito Moreno glacier stands in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, on November 29, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Certain areas of glacial ice take on a bluish hue due to light refraction. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the third largest ice field in the world. The majority of the almost 50 large glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park have been retreating during the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in ice caps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
SANTA CRUZ PROVINCE, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 28: Runoff cascades from the edge of Heim glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest ice field in the world, on November 28, 2015 in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. The majority of the almost fifty large glaciers in the park have been retreating over the past fifty years due to warming temperatures, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The United States Geological Survey reports that over 68 percent of the world's freshwater supplies are locked in icecaps and glaciers. The United Nations climate change conference begins November 30 in Paris. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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This dramatic event is unfortunately not an isolated incident. Similar starvations have happened about once a decade, most recently in 2006. But researchers worry that as global warming continues and sea ice disappears, these events might happen with more regularity. If there isn't enough time for people to rebuild their herds between one freezing event and the next, the Nenets way of life could vanish forever.

There's no way to stop the rains, but there may be ways to alleviate the devastation of future freezes. Local officials have discussed plans to reduce reindeer populations, so that the region doesn't have more animals than it can support as the climate changes.

Another, more immediate solution would be to establish mobile slaughterhouses in the region, which could alleviate both economic and animal suffering in the event of another wave of starvation. In 2013, the ice came when the herds were still around 60-120 miles away from the nearest slaughterhouse, which meant that the animals starved slowly instead of dying quickly, and their corpses were burned instead of being used for meat and fur. "It was very grim to have all those animals slaughtered in slow motion," Forbes says.

The mobile slaughterhouses would have another advantage too, potentially preventing the spread of anthrax in the region. The corpses of infected organisms from the last outbreak (in 1941) are releasing the pathogen into the landscape as they thaw, opening living animals up to infection. With the ability to quickly cull infected livestock using the mobile slaughterhouses, officials hope that the next outbreak might be more contained.

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