Image: Marcus Löfvenberg / Unsplash

Santa’s little helpers need our help: the effects of climate change on reindeer

The image of the reindeer is ingrained in the Christmas spirit Santa’s helpers pulling his sled filled with toys across the world. It seems however that we aren’t exactly repaying them for their hard work. The effects of climate change on species globally do not spare even the most mystical of animals. 

According to a 2014 Carbon Brief report, reindeer populations in the Arctic have fallen globally by about a third, dropping from 5.6 million to 3.8 million. 

Climate change presents serious problems to reindeer, disrupting their behavioural patterns and thereby threatening their survival. And unfortunately, in freezing environments where keeping warm is of utmost priority, higher energy consumption in hopes of curbing these threats can prove to be highly perilous and even fatal. The more threats a reindeer faces, the more energy it consumes trying to evade them, and the more they are at risk of succumbing to the cold weather. 

An increase in freeze-thaw periods means further depleting energy in their search for food

A big contributing factor is disruptions in their diets due to food availability and accessibility. Reindeer diets consist of a wide variety of grasses and herbs. They rely on this diversity to stay healthy and reproduce. However, warmer temperatures mean a shift in plant composition and an invasive abundance of woody plants such as willow and birch, which have lower nutritional value for reindeer. Studies have also shown an excess of greenhouse gas emissions can reduce the nutritional value of certain organisms. In addition, warmer temperatures lead to increased rainfall more rain in freezing environments means more ice, therefore ice crusts form on the surface and block access to plants lying beneath what would normally be snow. When snow is present as normal, reindeer already consume a significant amount of energy digging through it. An increase in freeze-thaw periods means further depleting energy in their search for food. These phenomena have led to recorded mass starvation events for reindeer in Russia and Norway. The way the warming climate disrupts ice formation/breaking periods means reindeer migratory routes may also be hindered. 

Warmer weather means higher breeding rates for insects – mosquitoes, warble flies, and nose bot flies swarm the reindeer herds and prompt them to escape the irritation. While it may seem silly, observers have reported following a herd of reindeer running for hours seeking refuge, hours they could have spent conserving energy and eating. In an environment where biodiversity is as low as it is in the Arctic, new introductions can ruin the ecosystem. Species like the reindeer that are adapted to the low competitiveness of the cold climate can see their survival compromised by parasitic invader species. 

Calves will miss optimal grazing periods and their growth will be debilitated

Another issue they face relates to their calving periods. Calves are born when flowers and herbs are at their peak nutritional value – it’s an evolutionary tactic to boost the growth period. However, due to changing weather patterns, if spring and summer come earlier, calves will miss optimal grazing periods and their growth will be debilitated. This is a common phenomenon coined trophic mismatch when the phenology of an animal, its cyclical biological needs, loses synchrony with the resources in its environment. And with the added burden of increased difficulty in accessing food buried beneath the ice, the growth of reindeer calves is significantly stunted, leading to not only mass starvation but also major disruptions in reproduction dynamics and curbed population growth.

While we may believe reindeer are a requisite symbol of Christmas, to indigenous communities like the Sami, they are essential to daily life. The Sami have ancient ties to the Arctic, and their culture is intertwined with the existence of the reindeer from herding and food production to handicraft and cultural symbolism, from textiles and clothing to sledding. This connection results in the translation of the effects of climate change on reindeer to the semi-nomadic, reindeer-herding Sami disruptions in migratory patterns affect both them and their companions, and the future of their relationship can be compromised. 

Like all other species on Earth, reindeer cannot escape the joys of competing with humans for land

Like all other species on Earth, reindeer cannot escape the joys of competing with humans for land what use are pastures if they aren’t being destroyed for oil and gas extraction? Alaska is one of many regions seeing mass deforestation for the expansion of resource exploitation into natural caribou calving grounds. With it comes the construction of large-scale infrastructures such as oil platforms, pipelines, but also roads for transportation. Not only does it physically push reindeer out of their natural habitat, but it can also block migratory routes, disrupt the ecosystem and introduce invasive species, and pollute rivers.

Saving the reindeer isn’t just about stopping it from becoming a mythical creature we only see on Christmas cards. We actually may have to turn to them for help on climate change their droppings and carcasses are incredibly rich in nutrients like nitrogen and are essentially fertilisers for soils, rivers, and trees. Not only that, they increase snow cover by grazing and trampling over shrubs which trap heat and warm the tundra. This also helps the snow reflect sunlight, which is especially important in open grasslands where there are no trees to offer shade. Demonstrations are taking place led by indigenous communities calling for the protection of reindeer herds, but they need the rest of the world’s support if our antlered icons are to continue delivering our Christmas gifts. 


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