Findings released by the Norwegian Polar Institute in May show that the animals starved to death on the remote archipelago of Svalbard after heavy rainfall early in the winter formed a thick layer of ice over their grazing pastures.
While some degree of mortality is normal for the reindeer population during the Arctic winter, Pederson said, deaths on this scale are a direct result of the acute food shortages prompted by climate change.
She believes these mass deaths exemplify how, even in remote areas untouched by humans, climate change is having a major effect on wildlife.
“It is scary to find so many dead animals. This is a terrifying example of how climate change affects nature. It’s just sad,” Pederson told NRK.
To compensate for the lack of grazing pasture, reindeer are changing their diets, behavior and habitats, moving to higher terrain or to beach areas to graze on seaweed and kelp, the NPI report found. But the animals can’t manage on seaweed alone, which causes them digestive issues, among other problems.
The recent report also found that adults and calves found alive on Svalbard this year had low body weight. Research presented to the British Ecological Society in 2016 found that rising temperatures meant female reindeer were able to gain more weight in summer and conceive more calves. Come winter, however, heavy rainfall would freeze the grass, meaning the pregnant reindeer would either lose their pregnancies or give birth to lighter young.
Over a 16-year survey, reindeer on Svalbard got an alarming 12% lighter.
The irony is that while reindeer are the victims of climate change, they could also be a powerful weapon to combat it. Research suggests that if reindeer aren’t available to eat vegetation on the tundra, the ground will absorb more solar radiation, resulting in a warmer surface temperature that promotes the melting of Arctic ice.
And, climate change or not, scientists say reindeer are an extremely important player in the Arctic ecosystem. Their loss could change the entire appearance of the Arctic landscape.