Reindeer herder and reindeer in Yamal, Russia.
Reindeer herding in Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Bruce Forbes.

New film shows the dramatic effects of climate change for the entire lifestyle of Nenets people

20.1.2023 8:28

For the nomadic Nenets people living in Yamal Peninsula, reindeer are a way of life. A recently published story by the BBC describes how climate change causes uncertainties for reindeer and the whole identity and culture of the Nenets. Research professor Florian Stammler was involved in the film project and considers it as a good example of how researchers and media can work together.

Nenets people are nomadic herders who have migrated with reindeer for centuries. Since reindeer rely on plants and lichen beneath the snow, people can migrate distances of up to 1200 kilometers to find fresh pasture. They are one of the very few remaining groups on the planet with such long distance nomadic migration without the assistance of motorized transport, all on foot and reindeer sledges. Their entire lifestyle is centred on their mobility with their reindeer herd, which is why they spend only a few days per year in towns and houses. Their homes are their nomadic camps consisting of reindeer-skin covered tents, chums. 

Due to climate change unusual weather conditions are more and more common. For example, rain on snow events are creating thick ice layers and preventing reindeer to get the plants and lichen they rely on. This has led to massive losses of reindeer due starvation. 

Research professor Florian Stammler from the Arctic Centre was involved in a multi-year project with the BBC, Frozen Planet II. The idea is to tell stories of communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis, also inspiring hope that change is possible.

– I took the BBC team in 2019 to the spring migration with Nenets reindeer herders, towards crossing the major Yuribei River in spring before its breakup. But then the herd and camp got held back by an icing of pastures, so the migration progressed more slowly, and we did not reach the river after all while the TV team was there, Stammler describes. 

Professor Stammler has a lot of experience in acting as link between the local people and media companies. 

– I did my first big media cooperation with the BBC and Discovery Channel back in 2006. After that I have regularly worked with TV companies on programmes about indigenous cultures in the Russian Arctic.

According to Stammler, working with serious media companies is a powerful tool for getting over the message of his research group to a large audience. 

– Scientific articles are read by a few thousand people at most. Films produced by well-known companies reach tens of millions of viewers. Increasingly, the webpages of big media companies also feature that content and get many more visitors than any scholarly publication. Therefore, even though we have to make compromises on the content in such programmes – they present an opportunity to raise awareness and get heard.

Stammler emphasizes that he and his team don’t get involved with every request for cooperating with the media. 

– It is good to be aware that companies use our reputation, our social capital, our friendships, contacts and our knowledge of the field for producing their content. This is a risk for us researchers that we need to manage well, Stammler continues.

Researchers have certain rules and ethics of working with their partners in the field that have to be followed by all parties, or cooperation is not possible. 

– Fair reimbursement of the expenses and time that people spend for producing content with media companies is an important condition. It also includes bringing back the production in a language that our field partners themselves can understand. This BBC production is a positive example: Frozen Planet was a serious multi-year research project, with the BBC staff doing a lot of preparatory reading work, planning, implementation and analysis, Stammler concludes.

An important role in the production was played by Roza Laptander, an affiliated researcher at the Arctic Centre, who performed interviews in the Nenets language, which is unusual as most interviews and research on Yamal is done in Russian.

Film Is There Hope for Reindeer in a Warming Arctic? is freely available on the BBC Earth YouTube channel. material was filmed in 2019. At the moment it is not possible to visit Nenets in Yamal Peninsula, Russia. Film has English subtitles:

Is There Hope for Reindeer in a Warming Arctic? | Our Frozen Planet | BBC Earth

More information:
Research professor Florian Stammler 
Arctic Centre, University of Lapland 
+358 400 138 807