A reindeer herder’s perspective on caribou, weather and socio-economic change on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska

  • Kumi Rattenbury
  • Knut Kielland
  • Greg Finstad
  • William Schneider


Non-climate variables shape vulnerability and adaptive capacity to climate change. Here, we describe how recent environmental and socio-economic developments have transformed reindeer herding and perceptions of weather on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. The reindeer industry has shrunk considerably since the early 1990s, when the winter range of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd expanded, and over 17 000 reindeer mixed with migrating caribou and left the region. Socio-economic and environmental repercussions make the continuation of herding tenuous, and erode the ability of herders to cope with weather variability, among other perturbations. We present a case study of one herder’s annual cycle, and juxtapose physical drivers of herding activities, including weather-station and herder observations of local weather variability, with socio-economic factors. There is an increased urgency to access and monitor reindeer with caribou present, but herding plans are constrained by lower economic returns and the need to spend more time in non-herding jobs. Although weather is a greater concern now for immediate herd access, standard weather data are largely irrelevant to the mechanics of herding, whereas variables pertaining to the timing of biotic events (e.g., synchrony of spring break-up and calving) and visibility are attributed to lost herding opportunities. Short-term responses to weather conditions stem from more longterm vulnerability associated with caribou presence, reduced herd size, difficulties affording snowmobile maintenance or crew assistance, and dwindling market opportunities. We emphasize the environmental and socioeconomic interactions that affect vulnerability and adaptive capacity for modern herding.


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How to Cite
Rattenbury, K., Kielland, K., Finstad, G., & Schneider, W. (2009). A reindeer herder’s perspective on caribou, weather and socio-economic change on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Polar Research, 28(1), 71-88. https://doi.org/10.3402/polar.v28i1.6106