Climate change had a devastating effect on the Artic reindeer, as the layers of ice caused by rain blocked the animals’ access to their primary source of food. Adult reindeer living on Svalbard have an average weight of 48kg, although these animals used to weight up to 55kg in the 1990s.
Svalbard is an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole. According to Steve Albon, a professor and ecologist from the James Hutton Institute, warmer summers come with great benefits for the reindeer population, but these animals have a hard time during the winter months.
Albon, who is also the lead author of the study, explains that due to warmer winters, the snowfall is replaced by a dangerous rain. Combined with low temperatures, this rain transforms into a thick layer of ice, making it impossible for the reindeer to reach the plants.
As a consequence, many reindeer starve to death, whereas females usually give birth to weak calves. On the other hand, the females have plenty of food during the summer months. As such, they are often healthy enough to breed in autumn.
The pregnancy lasts around seven months in reindeer. Based on the statistics, the herd increased from 800 specimens to roughly 1,400 since 1990. According to Albon, Svalbard reindeer increased in numbers, but they are smaller than before.
He also explains that a larger herd doesn’t necessarily mean that the animals will thrive. During the winter months, when the food is scarce, the animals will compete with one another for food. Compared to the world median temperatures, the Arctic temperatures are rising at a much faster rate due to the release of greenhouse gasses.
Little is known about the reindeer’s situation because most studies related to the impact of global warming on Svalbard have been focused mainly on polar bears. Therefore, other species, such as the rock ptarmigan bird and the Artic fox, are neglected.
Fortunately, the Artic fox population has increased slightly, but that is because they feed on reindeer carcasses, according to researcher Eva Fuglei from the Norwegian Polar Institute. She added that after the emaciated and sick specimens have died, the foxes won’t have enough food for the next winter because only the healthy adults will have survived.
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