Researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute have found more than 200 dead reindeer during their survey of Svalbard this year. The group has mapped Svalbard reindeer on the Norwegian Arctic archipelago for 40 years. Never before have they found so many dead animals in one year.
The three scientists that have been surveying the Arctic tundra for the last ten weeks say climate change is surely to blame. Researcher Åshild Ønvik Pedersen told NRK that it was scary to find so many dead animals. “This is a terrifying example of how climate change affects nature. It’s just sad,” she added.
Rising temperatures impact winter food source
During recent winters, temperatures have been notably higher than usual, causing an increase in the amount of winter rainfall. In December 2018, a period of heavy rainfall caused vast parts of the snow-covered ground to freeze. Reindeer access vegetation through the snow during the winter, so the ice cut off their only source of food.
Pedersen confirmed that the reindeer they found had starved to death. Not only were more than 200 animals found dead, those alive had notably less body weight than in previous years. The small, short-legged Svalbard reindeer is unique to the archipelago.
The Institute has stepped up its monitoring of reindeer along the west coast of Svalbard in recent years with the launch of a tag program. Along with measurements from snow, ice and grazing plants, data from reindeer herds will improve the research team’s knowledge on how climate change and the interaction between ice on land and the sea ice impact the lifestyle and movement of reindeer.
Extreme temperature increase
Svalbard is one of the places on earth hardest hit by the changing climate. According to a comprehensive report from the Norwegian Environmental Agency, the average annual temperature for the previous 30-year period increased from -0.6C (31F) in 1990 to 1.5C (34.7F) in 2017, with winter temperatures showing the biggest increase.
The agency’s director Ellen Hambro described the temperature increases as extreme: “The temperature rises faster here in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, and climate change has already had major consequences for nature, animals and the community on the island group.”
The impact of climate change on Svalbard
The amount of drift ice has reduced in recent years, making it hard for polar bears to find food. In 2018, a starving polar bear broke into the dry food storage room of a remote hotel to satisfy its hunger.
The Norwegian Polar Institute participates in the work of the Arctic Council. A report presented at a recent council meeting revealed that the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. The report also stated that the amount of sea ice in the region has reduced by 75% over the past 40 years. Such a rapid change has a significant impact on both land-based and marine ecosystems.
The warming climate has had a significant impact on the human population, too. More frequent avalanches in the mountains above the settlement of Longyearbyen are causing a major headache for authorities. Two people were killed in 2015 and avalanches have occurred every year since. Evacuations of residential streets are becoming a regular part of Longyearbyen life.