At this time of year there’s nothing more festive than the sight of reindeer in the snow. The population of wild Svalbard reindeer has expanded to about 1400 from 800 in the 1990’s. However, despite this increase, scientists say arctic reindeer are becoming lighter due to the impact of climate change.
Speaking at the British Ecological Society annual meeting in Liverpool, researchers revealed that as summers and winters have warmed, reindeer on Svalbard have become smaller and lighter. Over a period of 16 years, the adult reindeer weight has declined by 12% - from 55kg for those born in 1994 to just over 48kg for those born in 2010.
Professor Steve Albon, the ecologist who led the study explained: “Warmer summers are great for reindeer but winters are getting increasingly tough”. Less-chilly winters mean that once reliable snow now falls more often as rain that can freeze into a sheet of ice, making it harder for herbivores to reach plant food. Some reindeer starve and females often give birth to smaller calves.
In summer, however, plants flourish in a food bonanza that ensures the healthy females are more likely to conceive in autumn. “So far we have more but smaller reindeer,” Albon said of the animals on Svalbard, about 800 miles from the North Pole. But, the rising population also means more competition for scarce food in winter.
So, although warmer winters may seem good for arctic animals, in fact they can be deadly, as this recent editorial in The Guardian warns. The mean temperature here on Svalbard in January has risen by nearly 10°C in the last 26 years which is having a profound effect on the environment we love and cherish. That’s why we at Svalbarði are doing all we can to raise awareness of the disruptions caused by climate-change. Especially the work being done on Svalbard to understand and mitigate these problems, now and in the future.