Rain-on-snow events can be one of the most damaging outcomes of that change, at least for wildlife. About 50 caribou in one of Canada’s last Arctic refuges starved to death in 2016 after a rain-on-snow event deprived them of access to food. Some 20,000 musk oxen died after a rain-on-snow event struck a Canadian Arctic island in 2003.
Animals that hide in the snowpack to stay warm—like lemmings or seals—also suffer after these events, as frozen rain makes the snow denser and lowers its temperature. Sometimes their homes can even collapse. “This is suggested as a reason for why the regular up-and-down dynamics of lemming populations are going out of whack,” Smith told me.
Anderson, the Arctic biologist, also praised the use of photography in the study. “The use of photogrammetry to get measurements from free-ranging musk oxen is exciting because it means you can collect data that would otherwise require handling—so you can get more data with less stress on the animals,” she said.
The technique seems to work especially well with musk oxen, because the animals don’t run away from people, but form protective herds. “In times past, we could do cowboy biology, which is with helicopters, dart guns, immobilizations. But the beauty of this approach is that we don’t have to harass the animals that way,” Berger told me.
The trickiest part of the study, said outside researchers, was actually identifying that rain-on-snow events occurred at all. While some scientists now prefer to analyze the density of snowpack through satellite observation, that technique is still new, and the new study used nearby weather-station data instead.
And while the ice tsunami wasn’t as obviously triggered by climate change, it was certainly unusual. Storm surges so early in the year, with so much sea ice already on the Arctic Ocean, are little documented in the literature. And Freddie Goodhope, a local Inupiat leader who works with Berger’s team, said that neither he, nor his parents, nor his grandparents ever remembered or described a frozen surge like the one that occurred in Alaska.
It’s fitting that Berger is studying musk oxen, a creature straight out of the Ice Age, on Wrangel Island. Some of the world’s last mammoths died on Wrangel Island, surviving until just 3,800 years ago. “As we had pyramids being built, we still had mammoths on Wrangel Island,” he said. Next month, he’ll make his regular trip up to that frozen land for his annual research trip. It’s a flight that can only be made the long way—he’ll fly from Denver to New York to Moscow; then to Pevek, Russia’s northernmost city; before helicoptering for another two hours—but it’s also poetic that the Russian government allows him to study there as an American, he said.
That’s because Wrangel Island remains a refuge of sorts—and because Russia’s musk oxen only exist because of international cooperation. Musk oxen had been extinct in Russia for centuries until 1975, when the Soviet Union asked the United States for help resettling musk oxen. The United States happily complied—shipping musk oxen from eastern Alaska to their current home on Wrangel Island.