Norwegian Reindeer Population Growth and How Climate Change Is The Cause

A study carried out by scientists from the Univeristy of Manchester and the Norwegian Arctic university in Tromsø, have possibly discovered that the Norwegian reindeer population in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard are benefiting from climate change and their population is growing. The Svalbard reindeer was harvested heavily in Svalbard from 1860 to 1925, and the population was dramatically reduced. The harvest was banned, except for scientific sampling, between 1925 and 1983.

Svalbard reindeer herd on a ridge in St Jonsfjorden in Svalbard. Rebecca R Jackrel

Svalbard reindeer herd on a ridge in St Jonsfjorden in Svalbard.
Rebecca R Jackrel

In the past year, it has been estimated that the population has grown by 30% and that this could be a sign of the reindeer being able to survive and thrive in the face of climate change. Today the population averages at around 1,000 reindeer compared to the 600 in the 1980s. The scientists discovered this by counting the number of reindeer in the valley of Adventdalen in central Spitsbergen, part of a long term study of a reindeer population in Svalbard.

“Winter warming is widely held to be a major threat to reindeer across the Arctic but, in the high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard global warming has had the opposite effect. Our data provides remarkable confirmation of this counter intuitive observation,” Dr Nicholas Tyler of the Norwegian Arctic University said. Tyler has been keeping record of the reindeer numbers since 1979.

Svalbard reindeer

Svalbard reindeer

Dr Codd, who is the programme director for zoology at Manchester university, said: “The results revealed a remarkably successful year for Svalbard reindeer. Despite very high numbers in 2013, the population increased by almost 30% and reached a new record of just over 1300 animals, more than three times the population size in 1979 when the present series of counts began.”

The success of the reindeer has been attributed to little winter mortality and very high calving – there were over 300 calves in the valley which was the second highest number ever recorded. This could be due to the increasing temperature in Norway. In February, the temperature rose to above freezing, to around 4.2 degrees Celsius for six days.

However, although this is good news, this is such a small part of the Arctic and it would be presumptuous to say think that this may be an overall trend.

How reindeer populations are faring across the Arctic. Green is increasing, red is decreasing and orange is unknown. Source: Arctic Biodiversity Trends 2010

How reindeer populations are faring across the Arctic. Green is increasing, red is decreasing and orange is unknown. Source: Arctic Biodiversity Trends 2010

Populations of reindeer peaked in the 1990s and 2000s. However, studies have shown that wild reindeer and caribou populations are declining globally by about a third, from 5.6 to 3.8 million. In parts of North America, wild reindeer populations have dropped by more than 75 percent. Scientists have previously stated how difficult it is to monitor populations and typically, the number is only a rough estimate.

Svalbard reindeer

Svalbard reindeer

Climate change is resulting in ice melt and the reason for a perhaps increase in population (however, temporary) is that the plants and shrubs can be exposed, grow and the reindeer can feed. However, without the colder weather, lichen, the mainstay of reindeer diet, is declining and this is now causing population decline within the reindeer species. It is not just climate change that are impacting reindeer populations. Human activity has a far greater effect and it has been suggested hydrocarbon extraction is far more dangerous to reindeer populations than climate change.

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