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Reindeer, Ice and Snow

By Paul Greenberg, Safina Center Fellow

If Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer actually existed, science tells us that:

a) he would have had to have been a she, since northern hemisphere male reindeer shed their antlers before Christmastime and female northern hemisphere reindeer keep them.

or

b) he was a southern hemisphere invasive reindeer (like the ones humans introduced to South Georgia Island in the 19th century) and would have adhered to an opposite seasonal schedule particular to the southern half of the globe. If this were the case, then Santa would have had to have opened up a South Pole affiliate office but that’s not what I want to talk about here.

What I want to discuss is a very real factor that determines whether Rudolph or any other reindeer will survive in their native habitat: climate change.

Landing for our last hike of our week-long circumnavigation of Svalbard, my National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions crew and I soon encountered reindeer browsing in the interstices between strips of snow that were receding as spring advanced.

Photo: Paul Greenberg

This is the start of the weight-gaining season for reindeer and, like polar bears, they must maximize their calorie intake during the precious days of warmth and light. Instead of seals, for reindeer it’s a diet of lichen, moss, and a miniature tundra version of a willow tree that hugs the ground all up and down the harsh escarpments.

Photo: Paul Greenberg

But no matter how much weight reindeer manage to accrue from May to August, they will still need to feed after it gets cold and dark. And here is where the complexities of climate change rear their head again. Unlike the polar bear, which depends on sea ice to form so that it can feed on seals, reindeer are strongly affected by land ice–which can form if things are too warm in the polar fall. In an ideal season, the first snows of October are dry and fluffy. This makes for a light, insulating blanket that both protects moss from frost damage but which also can be scraped away easily by a browsing reindeer. But if the first precipitation of the fall is a freezing rain, then a hard ice cover forms over all of that potential fodder. Reindeer can’t chop through the glazing. In those years, record numbers of reindeer die.

On Svalbard the native reindeer were almost hunted to extinction in the first part of the 20th century but have strongly rebounded ever since proper game management rules were put into effect. (Hunters today are allowed only to take a single deer each season). But, like polar bears, all of that recovery could be lost should climate change push the cycle of ice outside of the threshold reindeer will tolerate.

Should that happen, reindeer in Svalbard could, like Rudolph, appear only in our minds and not on our planet.

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