In March, a team of scientists embarked on a 10-week survey of reindeer populations on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago that sits between the mainland and the North Pole. Experts have been monitoring Svalbard reindeer since 1978, but this year, they made a grisly discovery: the remains of more than 200 reindeer, which appear to have starved to death.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, scientists believe that climate change is the culprit, according to Mindy Weisberger of Live Science. The Arctic has been particularly hard hit by climate change, warming at almost twice the rate of the global average. Svalbard offers a particularly alarming example of this phenomenon; it is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, Jonathan Watts reported for the Guardian earlier this month.
Higher temperatures mean more rain has been falling on the archipelago. This past December, the region experienced a heavy bout of precipitation that froze when it hit the ground, forming thick layers of ice on the tundra. During the colder months, Svalbard reindeer typically use their hooves to dig through the snow to reach the vegetation below. But this year, they couldn’t break through the ice that covered their food source.
In the nearly 40 years that scientists have been monitoring the Svalbard reindeer, they have seen comparable death tolls only once before, after the 2007-2008 winter, according to the Agence France-Presse.
“It is scary to find so many dead animals,” Åshild Ønvik Pedersen, a terrestrial ecologist with the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), tells the Norwegian news outlet NRK, per a Google translation. “This is a terrifying example of how climate change affects nature. It's just sad.”
Scores of dead reindeer were not the only sign that this was a rough winter for the animals. The NPI revealed in a statement that both calves and adults on Svalbard displayed low body weights and an absence of fat on their backs—a clear indication that they hadn’t been getting enough to eat. There were also few pregnant females.
What’s more, researchers noticed that the reindeer seemed to be modifying their behavior in response to the rainy winters and a lack of fjord ice. For one, the animals were grazing on seaweed and kelp that remained accessible along the shoreline—though these food sources are not particularly nutritious and can cause digestive distress in reindeer. The animals were also climbing up steep mountains in search of food, which the researchers refer to as a “mountain goat strategy.” But reindeer are not as sure-footed as mountain goats, putting them at risk of falling. Finally, NPI researchers noted that the animals were migrating further to find food.
Svalbard’s reindeer are not the only ones suffering. Around the world, reindeer and caribou—which belong to the same species but differ in their behavior and geographic range—have plummeted by 56 percent, Jason Daley reported for Smithsonian last year. That decline is so dramatic that some researchers are concerned the animals cannot recover, which in turn could spell bad news for the Arctic ecosystem. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains, reindeer and caribou are the “region’s primary foragers, [helping] cycle nutrients from plants back into the soil, and their abundance is a primary control on predator and scavenger populations and behavior Arctic wide.”
NPI is now monitoring Svalbard reindeer through a tagging program called Climate Ecological Observation System for Arctic Tundra, or COAT. The goal is to get a better sense of how the reindeer’s health, habitat use and migration patterns are being affected by rapid and worrying changes to their ecosystem.