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Climate change impacts on the Yamal Nenets of northwest Siberia

This is Section 12.3.3 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
Lead Author: Mark Nuttall; Contributing Authors: Fikret Berkes, Bruce Forbes, Gary Kofinas,Tatiana Vlassova, George Wenzel

Given the lack of data on historic and prehistoric patterns of indigenous wildlife harvests and subsistence hunting in relation to climate or "weather" change, this case study focuses on the potential interactions between climate, land use, and reindeer management in the Yamal Nenets Autonomous Okrug of northwest Siberia. This is a region of ice-rich permafrost that has been subject to large-scale petroleum development over the past few decades, while at the same time giving indications of its sensitivity to decadal and even interannual variations in climate.

For at least a millennium[1], this region has also served as the homeland of the Yamal Nenets, nomads who have either hunted or herded reindeer as their main livelihood, supplemented by fishing, hunting, and gathering. Nenets have recently expressed concern in a number of fora regarding their future in reindeer husbandry because of forces largely beyond their control[2]. These concerns are discussed here within the context of climate change.

Arctic peoples are experts in adapting to changing conditions (environmental, social, and economic) and recognize their abilities in this regard. Nonetheless, Yamal Nenets are currently showing signs of stress adapting to the recent barrage of simultaneous changes in their homeland – from health and demography[3] to questions of land tenure[4] and increasingly severe "overgrazing", predation, and poaching on reindeer pastures[5]. There is some concern that a rapidly changing climate may accelerate ecosystem degradation in ways that Nenets are unable to cope with, given the constellation of other factors impinging upon their ability to maintain herding as a viable livelihood.

Krupnik[6] argued that indigenous reindeer pastoralism expanded rapidly throughout the Russian Arctic during the 18th century as a result of two interwoven factors – socio-economic transformation and environmental change, in particular climate change resulting in "ecologically favorable conditions". The biological factors Krupnik[7] cited which positively affected semi-domestic herd development were improvements in summer pastures and a concomitant increase in reproductive rates, coupled with a drop in summer and winter mortality. Proxy climate data for the past millennium for Yamal are summarized by Shiyatov and Mazepa[8] and indicate a summer warming trend throughout the 1700s, as described by Krupnik[9] for Eurasia in general.

Shiyatov and Mazepa[10] also reported late 19th and 20th century climate trends for Yamal and these indicate a warming trend during the early and mid-summer periods between about 1940 and 1960. The total reindeer population began a period of rapid growth around 1950, following the near decimation of the herds during the Second World War, and this continued through the 1990s[11]. At present there are around 180,000 animals on the Yamal Peninsula and more than 600,000 animals in the okrug managed by 2,618 mostly family-based units with a nomadic lifestyle[12].

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, various collaborative teams of scientists have made available a great deal of data on the relationship between climate and permafrost across the Russian Arctic. The Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) program is paramount among these efforts to observe changes in the seasonally thawed active layer and near-surface permafrost, including thermokarst erosion. Although the annual depth of substrate thaw (the "active layer") poorly reflects contemporary climatic warming on Yamal[13], inter-seasonal variability is strongly correlated with summer thawing degree-days. At the same time, the frozen ground beneath Yamal is characterized as "warm" permafrost with its temperature amplitude not far below 0 °C and these substrates have been warming in recent years[14].

With regard to air temperature, combined regional data from the mid-1970s onward show relatively small magnitude, positive trends in thawing degree-day totals, and a rise in mean annual air temperature. There is evidence that this is not the case in other parts of the Russian Arctic, such as neighboring Taymir and Chukotka in the Russian Far East[15]. Some recent modeling efforts project the onset of a climatic regime that is not conducive to the maintenance of permafrost over extensive areas of northwestern Siberia, with warmer spring and summer temperatures and additional precipitation. The authors concluded that such a development would have serious ramifications for engineered works in the region, owing to the extensive area underlain by massive ground ice[16].

In general, the ecological impact of large-scale climate variability and recent climate change on northern ungulates is well documented. Variations in growth, body size, survival, fecundity, and rates of population increase have all been correlated with major atmospheric phenomena including the North Atlantic and Arctic Oscillations[17]. There is evidence from northern Fennoscandia, for example, that both extremely high and low oscillation indices have adverse effects on reindeer[18]. The mechanisms underlying these correlations derive from direct and indirect impacts on grazing conditions for the animals, such as the phenological development and nutritional quality of forage plant species, late-lying snow cover in spring and early winter icing events, and the animals’ immediate thermal environment[19].

Regardless of these historical trends in climate impacts and future scenarios emphasizing risk, the overriding concerns for contemporary Nenets herders of Yamal revolve around what is collectively referred to as "the pasture problem"[20] and related issues pertaining to land tenure[21]. Nenets have constantly adapted to change prior to, during, and since the development of intensive reindeer management that became the dominant management regime in the early 1900s. They have survived first Tsarist and later Soviet dreams of establishing state and religious authority over even the most remote human populations. Yet nothing has challenged them like the ongoing search for petroleum beneath their ancestral lands.

Oil and gas development began in the 1960s and intensified steadily through the 1970s and 1980s, quickly followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and, almost simultaneously, the overnight disappearance of the largely artificial market for reindeer meat, and the replacement of barter with a cash economy. In the confusion of sorting out ownership of animals and title to land in a newly capitalist society, herd sizes continued to increase to historic highs as land withdrawals for industry pushed the animals onto progressively smaller parcels of land and restrictive migration routes, resulting in extensive pasture degradation[22].

The so-called pasture problem is multifaceted and has developed over a long period of time. The collectivization of the herds, which took place under Stalin, is partly to blame, as it instituted the restrictive "brigade" system of management and sought to maximize meat production for the Soviet "market". This took away Nenets’ ability to adjust to changing environmental conditions resulting from changes in weather, climate, social relations, and forage conditions, including grazing/trampling impacts. At present there are no fallow or "reserve" pastures on Yamal, as there previously were under traditional Nenets management. However, there were already reports of heavy grazing in some areas even before the onslaught of Soviet-style management[23].

The continued presence of the Nenets after the fall of communism, with their culture, livelihood, and ecosystems more or less intact, shows how successfully they had adapted to the period of collectivization. However, petroleum exploration developed rapidly and relatively unchecked, with a virtual lack of meaningful protocols and lax enforcement of the few new rules[24]. The problem now, from the herders’ perspective, principally concerns land withdrawals for petroleum exploration, infrastructure development, and related degradation processes such as quarrying for sand and gravel, blowing sand and dust, and off-road vehicle traffic in summer[25].

Alongside herding, Nenets have always supplemented their diet, clothing, and other needs by fishing and hunting. Nenets observe that the massive influx of industrial workers to Yamal and the concomitant increase in hunting and fishing pressure has meant the decimation of many freshwater ecosystems and some preferred game species (e.g., polar fox) in areas around the main gas fields and transport corridors[26].

In attempting to adapt to the heavy grazing pressure on the pastures the herders now see themselves as "racing" along their migration routes[27]. During field research in late summer 1991, the same week as the coup in Moscow took place, Bruce Forbes, one of the authors of this case study, met with herders near the main gas field of Bovanenkovo on north-central Yamal. The number of fully loaded sledges scattered around the camp surpassed the number of empty sledges. The head of the brigade explained that the reason was that they were breaking camp every 24 to 48 hours. He explained that as the herds have become larger they must now have the animals on the move almost constantly. One reason is to avoid rupturing the vegetation mat and exposing the fine-grained sand and loess beneath, which are prone to aeolian erosion, another is reduced forage quality.

Assessing the consequences of climate change and petroleum development, either individually or in combination, is particularly difficult for Rangifer spp. compared to other ungulates due to the complexity of their ecological relations[28]. These involve traditional patterns of migratory movements, resulting in transitory dependence on different ecosystems and special physiological and morphological adaptations that enable them to use a unique food resource. Also, their complex social structure varies seasonally[29].

In the west, reindeer herders and caribou hunters display an acute awareness of the need for coupling indigenous knowledge about wildlife and environment with scientists’ efforts to understand climate change and have clearly expressed their concerns as they pertain to traditional livelihoods[30]. Among reindeer herders in northern Russia, impacts other than those arising from changes in climate appear to be of more immediate concern and the overall situation has been described as a crisis[31]. This has led to what has been described as passive rather than active adaptation[32] to the many and drastic changes.

Dmitri Khorolya is himself Nenets and is both president of the Reindeer Herders’ Union of Russia and director of Yarsalinski sovkhoz, the largest collective management unit on Yamal. In his address to the Second World Reindeer Herders’ Congress in June 2001 he observed that:

the vulnerable ethnic-economical systems of [Russian] reindeer peoples are frequently exposed to hard market conditions, particularly where oil and gas mining has become the principal factor in the development of arctic areas. Industrial activity in the [Russian] north has resulted in the destruction of many thousands of hectares of reindeer pasture. The process is continuing. In some regions pasture degradation threatens preservation of reindeer husbandry and the anxiety of reindeer herders for their future should be heard by the world community.

Although permafrost-related changes may not be a major threat to subsistence in Inuvialuit (see the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) Report, section 12.3.1), the situation in Yamal has the potential to be different owing to the long, restricted migrations involved, and the loss of the Nenets’ traditional capacity for flexibility. As studies have shown, permafrost in the form of massive ground ice is common and the landscapes range from moderately to highly unstable even in the absence of industrial development or intensive reindeer management[33]. For Yamal, "what if" scenarios pertaining to climate change must include:

  • the prospect of early melting/late freezing sea ice in the Ob River delta, as this would remove access between winter and summer pastures for the main herds (e.g., Yarsalinski sovkhoz); and

  • increased traffic from the Northern Sea Route, perhaps inevitable but certainly benefiting from early melting/late freezing sea ice in the Kara Sea. This could accelerate the pace of regional development.

Either scenario risks additional stress on the adaptive abilities of the Yamal Nenets. Yet even in the absence of climate change, within the next two to three decades there are critical and immediate threats from questions of title to land and accelerating changes in land use. The latter includes local and widespread damage from industry, and the ecosystem-level effects of reindeer grazing and trampling, as well as poaching. Throughout this period the various parties must strive to minimize conflict[34]. In the longer term, if the current climate warming continues, extensive changes to existing tundra communities can be expected as permafrost begins to thaw and large areas are either denuded by landslide events[35] or subject to paludification by thawing ground ice via thermokarst. Adaptation to such changes will require: (1) greater efforts on the part of industry to prevent or mitigate additional disturbance; (2) a flexible system of land use, emphasizing property rights, that is acceptable to both the Nenets and the State; and (3) additional practitioners’ and scientific knowledge on the composition and potential forage utility of emergent plant communities which will necessarily be exploited by the reindeer.

 

Chapter 12. Hunting, herding, fishing, and gathering: indigenous peoples and renewable resource use in the Arctic
12.1 Introduction
12.2 Present uses of living marine and terrestrial resources
    12.2.1 Indigenous peoples, animals, and climate in the Arctic
    12.2.2 Mixed economies
    12.2.3 Renewable resource use, resource development, and global processes
    12.2.4 Renewable resource use and climate change
    12.2.5 Responding to climate change
12.3 Understanding climate change impacts through case studies
    12.3.1 Canadian Western Arctic: the Inuvialuit of Sachs Harbour
    12.3.2 Canadian Inuit in Nunavut
    12.3.3 The Yamal Nenets of northwest Siberia
    12.3.4 Indigenous peoples of the Russian North
    12.3.5 Indigenous caribou systems of North America

 

References

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Glossary

Citation

Committee, I. (2012). Climate change impacts on the Yamal Nenets of northwest Siberia. Retrieved from http://www.camelclimatechange.org/view/article/151247

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