Friday, October 31, 2014

Guest Post on Caribou

Majia here: A friend who lives in Alaska comments upon the declining herds of caribou:

Caribou in the coal mine?
Digital winds carry word that the great herds of caribou in Alaska and Canada are shrinking. As yet, few fingers are pointing at radiation fallout. However, Fukushima's explosive plumes simulations and CTBTO data show Alaska, western and northern Canada were heavily dosed with xenon-133 and god knows what other fission products. According to recent reports, fissioning is ongoing.

I've watched caribou from the Porcupine herd climb north through the Brooks Range and later aggregate on the coastal plain where it meets the Arctic Ocean. From a river bluff above the tundra, the wind carried the smell of caribou on the march: a moving feedlot. Summer browse is rich in this area, the place where the calves are born.

Caribou spend their lives with noses to the ground eating lichen, aka reindeer moss [Cladonia rangiferina]. They are equipped with a nasal structure that enables large surface area exposure, designed to warm cold air before reaching the lungs. Reindeer moss is a symbiont, a partnership of algae and fungi, and very slow growing. Mature patches can be upwards of 80 years old. On close inspection its tiny structure resembles bronchial branching in the lung. Form follows function as it relies on drawing nutrients and moisture from the atmosphere. 

The only large mammal to metabolize lichen, caribou evolved special bacteria and protozoa in their gut to digest it. Up to 94 percent of reindeer moss is a carbohydrate, the fuel that animates this creature for most of its life. In the summer, caribou also eat willow and birch leaves, sedges and grasses. Their lives revolve around eating, mating, birthing, sleeping and traveling. At the time of heaviest air emissions from Fukushima, pregnant females would have been headed north, feeding exclusively on lichen, digging through the snow to reach it.  

Lichens' pollution-absorbing character was one of the things that stopped Project Chariot, a 1959 scheme by Edward Teller to use nuke bombs to create 'harbors' on Alaska's northwest coast. I was acquainted with several University of Alaska scientists leading ecological research that concluded bomb fallout would poison lichen and that it would manifest in caribou and the people who ate them. They were fired and blackballed by the university president for standing by their conclusions. It's a crazy-ass story and emblematic of today's mire. Find it recounted here:

A comprehensive investigation of Project Chariot and the implications of its defeat is documented in 'The Firecraker Boys' by Dan O'Neill. A dogged researcher with a long history in Alaska, O'Neill spent years working to bring the story to light. The 'Firecracker Boys' illustrates how a few people fighting for their homes and culture used radiation science to stop the MIC in its tracks. The Fukushima crisis may give it a second wind, if for no other reason than to highlight scientists with backbones.

The decline in Alaska caribou numbers, however, precedes Fukushima. A state biologist who has studied caribou for 25 years, Jim Dau, says, "...Here is what I think is going on. In the last six, eight, ten years, we’ve had more rain on snow events than we used to. We’ve had more moisture fall, and it’s created icing conditions that seal the food. There’s food down there, but either the caribou can’t get to it, or when they finally do get to it, they’ve expended more energy getting there than they get out of it. I think that is what tipped the balance and started this herd [Western Arctic] going down."

Oscillating herd numbers are part of a normal response to shifting variables of food, predators and weather. Years of data and personal observations make the case. I think it's likely, however, that the failure of caribou to thrive is connected to radiation deposition in lichen but the effect is hidden in the earlier onset of decline. For 3.6 years, caribou across the North have been eating browse contaminated with Fukushima's fallout, bio-accumulating in each individual and negatively affecting survival. My guess is that fetal development issues are in play. Unfortunately, political decisions impede transparent research in this arena


Majia here: I cannot imagine the cummulative effects of ongoing atmospheric and ocean contamination from Fukushima and other leaking nuclear sites around the world. Fukushima steaming this morning: