An Alarming Number of Arctic Reindeer Starved to Death Last Winter, Likely Due to Climate Change

NPI researcher Åshild Ønvik Pedersen investigating reindeer remains.
Image: Elin Vinje Jenssen/NPI

More than 200 reindeer starved to death this past winter on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. The scientists who made the grim discovery say climate change is the likely culprit.

A team of researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) have completed their annual survey of reindeer populations on Svalbard, and the results are not good. The researchers found more than 200 reindeer starved to death on the Norwegian archipelago, an unusually high number for the region. It’s one of the worst winter die-offs the researchers have seen since these surveys began in 1978.

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A team of three scientists scoured Svalbard for 10 consecutive weeks beginning in March, conducting a census of free roaming reindeer, a key species they track to evaluate the state and health of tundra ecosystems. They discovered the dead reindeer during their survey.

Spring observations also revealed other worrying signs about Svalbard’s reindeer. Many calves and adults exhibited low body weight and barely any fat on their backs. Researchers only spotted a few pregnant females. This past winter was a tough one for the reindeer, and sadly, the youngest and oldest members of the herd were likely the first to die, according to the scientists.

A reindeer searching for food near the shoreline.
Image: Larissa T. Beumer/NPI
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“It is scary to find so many dead animals,” NPI researcher Åshild Ønvik Pedersen told Norwegian state broadcaster NRK (translation via Google). “This is a terrifying example of how climate change affects nature. It’s just sad.”

Normally, reindeer use their hooves to kick up snow to gain access to the nutritious vegetation lying underneath. But this year, excessive rain on the snow during the early winter caused thick layers of ice to form on the tundra, making it difficult—if not impossible—for the reindeer to gain access to the plants. The NPI scientists say climate change is causing temperatures to rise leading to more rain in the area.

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Indeed, the Arctic is particularly vulnerable to climate change, and few places in the world are experiencing global warming as quickly as in Svalbard, which is located approximately 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) from the North Pole. The Norwegian archipelago “is now experiencing the biggest and fastest changes in air temperature on land,” NPI wrote in a press release, and the “consequences for the state of ecosystems are currently unclear.” At Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on the island, average temperatures have risen 3.7 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1900, which is three times more than the global average.

In desperation, some reindeer have resorted to eating kelp and seaweed.
Image: Malin Daase/NPI
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Climate change is also affecting the behavior of the reindeer. During their winter field work, the researchers observed three different behavioral responses to the rainy winters: grazing on the shoreline to feed on seaweed and kelp, climbing up steep mountains in search of food, and wandering to new places in search of better grazing possibilities. But as the NPI researchers pointed out, eating of kelp and seaweed is not ideal for the reindeer since it’s less nutritious and can cause digestive problems.

NPI is currently in the process of implementing a new tag program called Climate Ecological Observation System for Arctic Tundra, or COAT. Data collected from reindeer herds will offer new insights into climate change, and how changing environmental conditions are affecting the reindeer in terms of their health, habit use, and migration patterns.

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About the author

George Dvorsky

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.