The Norwegian Polar Institute’s annual census of wild reindeer found that 200 animals had starved to death over winter due to climate change in the Arctic archipelago Svalbard. This is an unusually high number. There are still 4 million reindeer in the Arctic, but researchers are afraid of the fact that climate change is affecting the polar regions more severely than other parts of the world. The climate change is threatening Arctic reindeer in Norway’s as well as in Sweden’s arctic regions.
Unusual weather patterns in the region are threatening the herding animals’ grazing grounds. The head of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s census, Åshild Onvik Pedersen, says that the climate changes are happening twice as fast in the Arctic as in the rest of the world.
Ilona Kater, PhD researcher in Arctic Ecology at Durham University, states that “reindeer are incredibly hardy creatures – they survived the last Ice Age and today live in some of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes. Despite their fine-tuned adaptations to life in the Arctic and after over 600,000 years of living there, reindeer are struggling to survive the rapid changes happening all around them.”
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Roughly half of the reindeer population in the Arctic has an extraordinary relationship with people. The animals graze the tundra and by keeping the brush short, they allow precious sunlight to reach some of the more rare plants and grasses and create a diversity that helps the tundra survive as climate change impacts the region.
“If we don’t find better areas for the reindeer where they can graze and find food, then the animals will starve to death,” said a Swedish reindeer herder.
Reindeer using their hooves to find food
Reindeer find vegetation in the snow using their hooves during wintertime, but alternating freezing and thawing periods can create layers of impenetrable ice, depriving the reindeers of nourishment. In the winter of 2013-14, 61,000 reindeer starved to death in the Yamal peninsula of Russia.
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Sami herding communities fear climate change could mean the end of their traditional lifestyle in a region spanning northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and west Russia. For many years the indigenous Saami have tried to survive in conflict with industries and government over land.
Climate Change Threatening Arctic Reindeer
Bad winters happened every decade or so also before, but extreme weather are getting more and more normal, according to elder Sami herders. Onvik Pedersen says that a comparable death toll in the Svalbard region has been recorded only once before, after the winter of 2007-2008, since monitoring of the reindeer population started 40 years ago. One study in Norway found that in the last century, undisturbed reindeer habitat has shrunk by 70%, including grazing lands that have been flooded for hydroelectric dams.
Measurements by the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute show the country has warmed 1.64 degrees Celsius (2.95 degree Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times. In Sweden’s alpine region, this increase is even greater, with average winter temperatures between 1991 and 2017 up more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degree Fahrenheit) compared with the 1961-1990 average.
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Migration routes being broken apart
The reindeer’s migration routes are being broken apart by roads, fences and railway lines causing the animals have less and less to eat. The climate change on top of all this makes an already difficult situation even worse. Many reindeer herders are forced to purchase feed for their reindeer during winter – and smaller herders find this extra cost hard to handle. Today, only about 10% of the 70,000 Sami reindeer herders make a limited income from meat, hides and antlers crafted into knife handles.
Without reindeer, the diversity of plant species drops. One study found that the diversity dropped as grasses that reindeer previously had kept in check were allowed to proliferate and push out other species, like mosses and liverworts.
Climate Change Threatening Arctic Reindeer, written by Tor Kjolberg