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Was caribou decline related to Fukushima’s radiation?

Written by Douglas Yates

Digital winds carried word that the great herds of caribou in Alaska and Canada were at risk. Scientists who track herd numbers were surprised at the steep declines. In the span of a few years, 200,000 animals disappeared.


Few fingers pointed at radiation poison as the cause. However, simulations of radioactive plumes released in March 2011 by the Fukushima, Japan nuclear power plant, and international monitoring data cannot be waved away.


The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) measures and analyzes radiation in the global atmosphere. One of its sensors is located southeast of Fairbanks, near Salchaket (Designated RN76). CTBTO data show that Alaska and neighboring western and northern Canada, received heavy doses of xenon-133 and other fission contaminates. Backtracking the contamination connects it to the explosions at Fukushima.


Despite mainstream media’s decision to ignore Fukushima, its reality deserves attention. According to the latest Greenpeace reports from Japan, the wrecked facility continues to leak radiation into the air and ocean.

A caribou spends most of its life with its nose to the ground browsing lichen, aka reindeer moss. The animals are equipped with a nasal structure that enables high surface area exposure, designed to warm cold air before reaching the lungs.


Reindeer moss is very slow growing and relies on the atmosphere for some of its nutrition. Mature patches can be upwards of 80 years old. Analysis shows that as much as 94 percent is a carbohydrate.


The caribou is the only large mammal to metabolize lichen. Unique bacteria and protozoa in its gut catalyze digestion. In the summer, caribou also eat willow and birch leaves, sedges, and grasses. Their lives revolve around eating, mating, birthing, traveling and sleeping.


At the time of heaviest emissions from Fukushima, pregnant females in Alaska would have been on the march, feeding almost exclusively on lichen, digging through the snow to reach it.

In 1959, the pollution-absorbing qualities of lichen became a significant obstacle blocking Project Chariot. A brainchild of Edward Teller (father of the hydrogen bomb), the scheme intended to use nuclear explosions to create ‘harbors’ on Alaska’s northwest coast. I was acquainted with several University of Alaska scientists involved in research that concluded bomb fallout would poison lichen. The radiation would then move up the food chain to caribou and the people who eat them.


For standing by their data, the scientists were fired and blackballed by the university president. It’s a crazy-ass story and emblematic of today’s mire in science funding and number fudging.

A comprehensive investigation of Project Chariot and the implications of its defeat are detailed in ‘The Firecraker Boys’ by Dan O’Neill. A dogged researcher with a long history in Alaska, O’Neill devoted years working to bring the story to light. The book illustrates how a few people fighting for their home and culture used radiation science to stop the military-industrial complex in its tracks. The Fukushima crisis may give a second wind to efforts to create a rational nuclear energy policy, if for no other reason than to highlight scientists with backbone.

The decline in caribou numbers, however, preceded Fukushima. Jim Dau, a biologist who studied Alaska caribou for 25 years, 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 going down.”

Oscillating herd numbers are thought to be part of a normal response to the variables of food, predators, and weather. In the down cycle, I think it’s likely that the failure to thrive is connected to radiation deposition in lichen but the effect is hidden in the earlier onset of decline. They’ve been feeding on it for 7.5 years, where it bio-concentrates in each animal. Internal exposures are likely impacting the immune system.


In 2018, after a decade of decline, the Western Arctic herd and the Porcupine herd have both seen numbers rebound. The increases point to the animals’ inherent resilience.


According to state biologist Alex Hansen, “During the declining years, adult cow mortality was high and calf recruitment was low, but since 2015 we’ve observed a positive shift in survival and recruitment rates. With fewer productive cows exiting the population and an increased number of calves joining the herd, things were bound to improve.”


Douglas Yates is a writer and photographer living in Ester, Alaska.




















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Douglas Yates

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