The rugged Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is littered with the carcasses of at least 200 reindeer who have starved to death. The reason behind this freak die-off, researchers say, is the planet's mounting climate crisis.
Ecologists at the Norwegian Polar Institute have carried out a census of Svalbard’s reindeer population every year since 1978 when reindeer were reintroduced to the Brøggerhalvøya peninsula. Their latest survey has found the biggest drop in numbers seen yet.
Along with finding hundreds of dead bodies during their survey, the researchers noticed that many calves were underweight and undernourished.
The Norwegian Polar Institute used data to show that milder winters led to dramatically heavier rainfall over the islands that make up Svalbard. The rainwater settles on the tundra causing the ground to become icy and tough to penetrate. As a result, it is difficult for the reindeer to feed on vegetation.
“The reindeer graze all over Svalbard, and in winter they dig up food from the tundra. They can dig through snow, but not ice,” Åshild Ønvik Pedersen explained to NRK, Norway’s national broadcaster.
“It is scary to find so many dead animals. This is a terrifying example of how climate change affects nature. It's just sad,” he added.
Some of the reindeer, however, have adapted their behavior to confront the new challenges. For example, researchers observed that herds in Brøggerhalvøya have started grazing the shoreline, consuming seaweed and kelp, and higher-lying steep mountains.
The Arctic is feeling the sting of climate change more immediately and severely than anywhere else on the planet. According to the NOAA, surface air temperatures in the Arctic are warming at a rate twice as fast as warming across the rest of the planet. Svalbard is especially vulnerable to these changes. The archipelago’s largest settlement, Longyearbyen, is said to be the fastest-warming town on Earth.
This is all the more worrying because what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. As the area warms up and its ice melts, it loses its ability to reflect the Sun's heat, thereby warming the climate even further. The melting polar ice caps also lead to rising sea temperatures, which will cause catastrophic damage to human settlements and infrastructure in turn.
This is before we even consider how these turbulent changes will affect biodiversity and the people who depend upon these living resources. Most scientists agree that we are on the brink of Earth's sixth mass extinction event. A number of factors are driving this trend, although almost all are related to human activity, such as deforestation, poaching, pollution, loss of habitat, and climate change.