As the Planet Warms, What Happens to the Reindeer?

Ecologists are racing across the ice to find out how climate change will affect the Arctic natives

(Randall Hyman)
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It’s a frigid Tuesday morning in April, and Steve Albon is riding on the back seat of a snowmobile below white peaks on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. He clutches the side of the speeding vehicle with one hand. In the other, he holds a pole fixed to a square net the size of a studio apartment. A rider on another snow machine holds a pole at the net’s opposite side. It drags on the snow as they rush toward three goat-size animals sprinting out in front of them.

These shaggy gray and white creatures are known as Svalbard reindeer, after this island group nearly 500 miles north of the European mainland, east of Greenland. A close relative of Alaska’s caribou and the semi-domesticated reindeer of Scandinavia, this sweet-faced, stubby-legged subspecies looks part ungulate and part teddy bear. With no natural predators here, and accustomed to snowmobile traffic, they’re not particularly afraid of people. But that doesn’t mean they’ll walk right into a trap.

The two racing snowmobiles close in on one of the three reindeer, a young female with a collar and white ear tags. Each passenger quickly lifts his pole, then lets go. As the poles fall, the net wafts down atop the deer and catches her antlers. She tries to buck it off.

A third snowmobile, the one I have been riding, along with a Norwegian veterinarian named Erik Ropstad, has been following the action. When we reach the reindeer, Ropstad dives at her, and soon White 150 is pinned on the snow.

In the Arctic regions of Norway, researchers track down reindeer to measure how the warming winters affect the species at large

White 150 is just one in a long line of reindeer that have occupied Albon almost every April since 1995. A 59-year-old ecologist from the southwest of England whose hair has tinges of the reindeers’ white and gray, Albon got started with hoofed animals in the 1970s, first during a summer trip to study antelope in Kenya and then as a research assistant at Cambridge University, when he became involved in a decades-long study of red deer on the Isle of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland.

Albon, now at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, has spent his career tracking wild populations. Here in Svalbard, he races up near-vertical slopes on a machine that feels as if it may flip at any moment. But he’s not in it for the rush. He’s snowmobiling for science, to collect as much data as possible about the hundreds of reindeer that wander the valleys of central Spitsbergen.

After catching up with White 150, he and his team record her weight, leg length and antler points (both sexes have antlers), and take samples of her hair, blood and feces for analysis. The biological tidbits tell the story of White 150’s life. When combined with data from other deer, they also trace the rises and falls in reindeer population across generations, a Nordic saga based on some 3,000 encounters with more than 800 reindeer. “I’m committed to long-term research projects on individuals,” Albon says. “That’s the way we unravel the natural history.”

Early in their studies, the scientists tried to tackle reindeer without the help of a net. “Potentially dangerous for both the reindeer and the leaping passenger,” Steve Albon says. (Helen Fields)
Veterinarian Erik Ropstad holds a young female while graduate student Larissa Beumer untangles her. The reindeer, caught here for the first time, is less than a year old. (Helen Fields)

Albon and his snowmobiling colleagues have recently honed in on weather, which appears to be behind much of the recent action in the Svalbard saga. It is perhaps the single biggest factor determining how Svalbard reindeer will fare as the planet warms. We have all imagined a grim fate for the polar bear, left behind in an Arctic without enough ice. Svalbard reindeer could be in trouble too, but, perhaps surprisingly, for the opposite reason: too much ice.


Anyone can buy a plane ticket on a regular commercial airline from mainland Scandinavia to Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, which is what I did. A stuffed polar bear watches over the baggage claim at the airport, a ten-minute bus ride from the tiny town. From there, it’s about an hour on snowmobiles along well-traveled paths to the bare-bones cabin where the scientists spend about ten days every spring, crammed inside with bunk beds, a paraffin stove and several bottles of scotch.


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