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Even Christmas Is Not Immune to Climate Change; Scientists Warn of Shrinking Reindeer

By Craig Lewis
Buddhistdoor Global | 2016-12-13 |
A man dressed as Santa Claus is pulled by a reindeer in Rovaniemi, Finland. Photo by Kacper Pempel. From csmonitor.comA man dressed as Santa Claus is pulled by a reindeer in Rovaniemi, Finland. Photo by Kacper Pempel. From csmonitor.com

Scientists have warned that climate change is impacting the reindeer population on a chain of islands near the North Pole, where warming temperatures—which are rising faster in the arctic than the world average amid a buildup of atmospheric greenhouse gases—have resulted in a larger population of smaller, weaker reindeer.

Warmer summers on the Svalbard archipelago north of Norway mean that plant life is flourishing during the summer months, which makes healthy females more likely to conceive. However, warmer winters have resulted in the ground being buried beneath a thick layer of ice as more frequent rainfall freezes the existing snow cover, restricting the reindeer’s access to their primary diet—mainly mosses, lichens, and grasses that lie beneath the once-reliable blanket of snow.

A recent study found that while one wild herd has grown to some 1,400 animals from about 800 in the 1990s as a result of the warmer summers, the average weight of adult reindeer on Svalbard, about 1,300km from the North Pole, has fallen 12 per cent from 55kg to 48kg over the same period.

“Warmer summers are great for reindeer, but winters are getting increasingly tough. So far we have more but smaller reindeer,” said Steve Albon, lead author of the study and an ecologist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, who, along with his colleagues, presented their findings yesterday at a meeting of the British Ecological Society. “[A 12 per cent average weight decline] may not sound very much, but given how important body weight is to reproduction and survival, it’s potentially huge.” (The Christian Science Monitor, Popular Science)

Wild reindeer forage for food on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. Photo by Ben Birchall. From theguardian.comWild reindeer forage for food on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. Photo by Ben Birchall. From theguardian.com

Female reindeer that weigh less than 50kg give birth to smaller young and may sometimes terminate their pregnancies to save themselves if food becomes too scarce. Yet even when they survive, smaller calves, which begin to reproduce when they reach about three years old, themselves produce smaller offspring.

In northern Russia, the environmental impact has been even more telling. The world’s largest reindeer herd, which inhabits the Taymyr Peninsula, Russia’s northernmost tip, has declined by 40 per cent since 2000 as a result of rising temperatures and human activity, which are pushing the reindeer to alter there usual annual migration habits.

“There is a substantial decline—and we are also seeing this with other wild reindeer declining rapidly in other parts of the world," said Andrey Petrov, head of the University of Northern Iowa’s Arctic Centre. “Climate change is at least one of the variables.” (BBC)

The Taimyr herd, which has been monitored for almost 50 years through aerial surveys and satellite imagery, reached a peak of 1 million reindeer in 2000, but the latest data puts the current level at some 600,000. Research indicates that the reindeer having been traveling further east during summer months to avoid industrial expansion in the region, but are also migrating northwards to higher elevations in a bid to find cooler temperatures and to the escape swarms of mosquitoes that are flourishing in the warmer, wetter climate.

Petrov noted that the new migration patterns, undertaken with newborn calves, spanned longer distances, which was impacting calf survival rates, coupled with scarcer food distribution at higher elevations.

Scientists say Arctic reindeer are becoming smaller and lighter due to the impact of climate change. From sciencemag.orgScientists say Arctic reindeer are becoming smaller and lighter due to the impact of climate change. From sciencemag.org

“Reindeer are tremendously important for biodiversity—they are part of the Arctic food chain and without them other species would be in trouble,” he emphasized. “But on the other hand, in all the areas they inhabit, they are vital for people’s survival. Thousands and thousands of people rely on wild reindeer; it is the basis of their subsistence economy. So it’s about human sustainability too.” (BBC)

See more

Contrasting effects of summer and winter warming on body mass explain population dynamics in a food-limited Arctic herbivore (Global Change Biology)
Rising Arctic temperatures mean more, but smaller reindeer (The Christian Science Monitor)
Reindeer are shrinking, because of warmer arctic temperatures (Science)
CLIMATE WAR ON CHRISTMAS: GLOBAL WARMING IS CAUSING REINDEER TO SHRINK (Popular Science)
World's largest reindeer herd plummets (BBC)
Reindeer shrink as climate change in Arctic puts their food on ice (The Guardian)

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