The Siberian Tundra

In The Undercurrent, Yulia Sokolova and Ignat Artemov travel across the northern coast of Russia towards Siberia, where her Yulia’s father Dmitry is preparing his oil extraction fleet at the Pyasina Delta. On their way there, they are helped by a tribe of Nenets, who are indigenous people native to the Siberian Tundra. Read on to find out more about this frozen and inhospitable region of Earth.

Siberia is an enormous geographical region, spanning 13 million square kilometres between the Ural Mountains to the West and the Pacific Coast to the East. Siberia has been a part of Russia since the 16th Century. Whilst Siberia covers 77% of Russia’s total area, it is extremely sparsely populated, containing only 23% of Russia’s population. This is due to the cold winters and inhospitable climate, which poses great challenges to anyone living there.

Whilst vegetation across most of Siberia is classed as Taiga (slow growing coniferous forests; also called ‘Boreal Forests’), the Northern coast of Siberia, as well as the Northern coast of Russia to the west of Siberia, consists of inhospitable tundra. Tundra is distinct from Taiga in that, due to the extremely low temperatures, trees cannot grow. This is caused by a layer of permafrost (ice that stays frozen throughout the year) below the soil that prevents deep root penetration. The Siberian tundra is dominated by smaller plantforms, such as dwarf shrubs, sedges, grasses, lichens and mosses.

As Siberia experiences a consistently warmer climate throughout the year due to climate change, large areas of permafrost have begun to melt, with devastating consequences. Permafrost contains not only frozen water but also

The Siberian Tundra in summer

The Siberian Tundra in winter

dead plant matter that has been prevented from decomposing by the cold. When permafrost thaws, this plant matter begins to decompose, releasing greenhouse gases such including methane and carbon. Perhaps even worse than this, large stores of methane gas are often trapped under permafrost, and the gas is released very quickly when the permafrost above it melts.

Arctic permafrost melt is an important example of a ‘positive feedback’ event: an event caused by climate change that causes further climate change. Because a permafrost melt (which is originally caused by a warming climate) releases more greenhouse gases, this in turn contributes to an ever warmer climate, and even more permafrost melts. There are many such examples of positive feedbacks in Earth’s climate system. This effect, where after a certain point climate change happens ‘on its own,’ is what scientists mean when they talk about ‘runaway climate change.’

The Nenets: Indigenous people of the Siberian Tundra

The Nenets are a migratory people, native to Russia’s northern tundra. There are only just over 40,000 of them, their population having been massively reduced during the Soviet era as a result of forced integration into the authoritarian state system. Each spring, they migrate the one thousand miles up the Yamal peninsula so that their reindeer herds can graze, spending their winters further south in the Taigas of the Russian mainland. The Nenets way of life is heavily adapted around this annual migration: Nenets live in movable homes called chum, which are a little like wigwams, with wooden radial beams collected at a point overhead, covered over with multiple layers of reindeer skins to keep out the Arctic chill.

A Nenet woman stands beside her chum dwelling

The most important thing to know about the Nenets is that they are inseparable from their reindeer. It is a kind of social contract, running deep in their psychology and culture – the Nenets protect their herds from predators such as the Arctic wolf, and in return, a reindeer is killed every now and again for their meat and skins. The Nenets, for reasons of long-term survival, never kill more than the reindeer population can replenish through breeding, so the practice is completely sustainable. The Nenets are notable for eating their reindeer raw and uncooked, including the blood; this is a vital tundra survival practice, as it results in minimal energy loss from the carcass, in terms of both nutrition and the body heat of the still-warm animal when it is consumed. This practice led to widespread persecution of Nenets by Russians, who frowned upon the practice as barbaric and primitive. In fact, the Nenets used to be called The Samoyed, or “self-eaters”, due to an entirely false rumour that Nenets were cannibals. ‘Nenet,’ thankfully, is a much more neutral term, simply meaning ‘man.’

Across the globe, indigenous peoples following ancient ways of life are often vulnerable and persecuted, and sadly the Nenet people are no exception. Siberia is extremely oil and gas-rich, and the heavy industry that now dots the landscape, connected to civilisation by industrial railway lines thousands of miles long, often proves extremely disruptive to the Nenets as it obstructs their natural migration routes. Worse still, the climate crisis is causing ice to melt much earlier and freeze much later. As reindeer find it difficult to cross snowless tundra, Nenets tribes are having to alter their migration routes accordingly, often by great distances. Climate change also affects availability of lichen – the reindeers’ food source – and this has hugely impacted reindeer numbers amongst both wild herds and those protected by Nenets families.

Permafrost melt is an even more terrifying prospect for the Nenets than heavy industry and longer summers. In the 20th Century, anthrax outbreaks in the Russian tundra killed a million and a half reindeer, and many of these corpses were subsequently frozen intact under layers of permafrost, the anthrax pathogens dormant but still alive within them. Permafrost melt subsequently carries with it the risk of further anthrax outbreaks as these long-dead corpses are exhumed, and it is believed that this has already resulted in an outbreak in 2016 which hospitalised 72 Nenet reindeer herders. This is likely to continue as ever more permafrost melts, revealing even more reindeer corpses infected with anthrax.

In 2013, over 15,000 reindeer starved to death as a result of unexpectedly warm

A Nenet man tends to his tribe's reindeer

weather which thawed and then refroze the surface ice, trapping the lichen that reindeer rely upon underneath it. Over sixty Nenets families lost their livelihoods that year – they lost their source of food, clothing, shelter and transport in one fell swoop. But perhaps the real tragedy lies in what those Nenets families had to do next in order to survive. Simply to get food on the table and wood in the stove, young Nenet men were forced to work in the massive reindeer slaughterhouses of Siberia, being paid to kill thousands of reindeer using industrial processes that are a grave insult to the methods of the Nenets, whose bond with their reindeer is more than just practical – it is spiritual. Severe depression and even suicide are common amongst Nenets who have lost their ancient livelihoods and are forced to work to survive in this way.

 

The Nenets are a tough people, but in the years to come, the hardships that they face are only set to grow as the climate of the Russian tundra becomes more chaotic.

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