for over a thousand years, the indigenous nenets people have moved seasonally with their reindeer along ancient migration routes in the yamal peninsula. but this remote region of northwest siberia, a vast tundra wilderness that stretches deep into the arctic ocean, is now under heavy threat from global warming.
traditionally, the nenets cross the frozen ob river in november and set up camp in the southern forests around nadym, where their reindeer graze on moss and lichen pastures. in recent years, however, this annual winter pilgrimage has been delayed until late december when the river is thick enough to traverse.
“our reindeer were hungry. there wasn’t enough pasture,” jakov japtik, a nenets reindeer herder, said. “the snow is melting sooner, quicker and faster than before. in spring it’s difficult for the reindeer to pull the sledges. they get tired.” added sergie hudi, “the reindeer for us are everything — our home, our food, our warmth and our transportation.”
last year the nenets arrived at a regular summer camping spot only to discover that half of the lake had drained away after a landslide. while landslides do occur naturally, scientists say there is unmistakable evidence that yamal’s ancient permafrost is melting. winter temperatures, for example, have gone up ten degrees celsius in the last hundred years.
”it’s an indication of the global warming process,” says vladimir tchouprov for greenpeace russia. “the melting of russia’s permafrost could have catastrophic results for the world by releasing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane that was previously trapped in the frozen soil.” he adds that if temperatures continue to climb, much of russia’s northern region will be turned into impenetrable swamp.
the yamal peninsula also contains the biggest gas reserves on the planet, and gazprom, russia’s state energy giant, is building several ambitious infrastructure projects across the tundra which threaten the peninsula’s delicate arctic ecology and disrupt the nenets’ migration routes.
photos by bryan and cherry alexander (previously featured). story adapted from luke harding for the guardian and joanna eede for survival international. (previous climate change and arctic posts)