By Rebecca McCullough, Stanford University
New studies are placing these creatures, alongside such species as the polar bear and the penguin, on the climate change watch list. While studies have found numerous pathways linking climate change to reindeer extinction, the newest study seems to be the most ominous yet. The forecast? Warm weather, lots of rain, and no food for reindeer. Just as poor Tantalus - Zeus's son eternally punished for killing his own son - stood in a pool of water and under a tree of fruit,, yet could not access his food, reindeer simply cannot reach their food anymore. Climate change-induced rainfall is leading to the formation of a thick layer of ice above their food - a tasty meal of lichen and moss. This ice layer, even too thick for tool-bearing humans, denies reindeer their sustenance, and adds to the growing body of threats that climate change is placing on their very existence.
Reindeer naturally engender connotations of the joyful tidings of Christmas and the fulfillment of childhood dreams. But beyond the symbolism, reindeer are essential to the indigenous livelihoods and cultures in the Arctic. These indigenous groups fundamentally rely upon natural resources, in particular animals, for subsistence in one of the most severe environments in the world, too cold for agriculture and too dispersedly populated for industry. In fact, reindeer hunting first enabled people to inhabit the Arctic following the last ice age, and reindeer husbandry subsequently sparked a substantial increase in Arctic populations. It is even believed that reindeer were the first herd animals raised by man. Today, reindeer not only form a substantial part of the Arctic food base, but they serve important cultural purposes, as well. In addition to shaping their way of life as individuals and communities, mythologies, festivals, and ceremonies based upon reindeer indicate reindeer's social and spiritual importance to many indigenous peoples.
Such a strong reliance upon the reindeer makes these groups vulnerable to stresses or shocks in reindeer populations. Therefore, such a shock would threaten their entire sustainability. The limitations posed by their physical environment impede Arctic peoples' ability to adapt to rapid change, and the limited substitutions available to these people lower their resilience to changes in their fundamental necessities. The groups' successes have come from a graceful equilibrium with the natural world. As has been observed in Arctic communities that have attempted to transition away from their traditional hunting economies, a multitude of social problems, including poverty and drugs, accommodate transition as the social values that accompany the community's way of life disintegrate.
Similarly, the entire Arctic ecosystem is in a graceful equilibrium. The effects of climate change are predicted to disrupt the Arctic ecosystem earliest and most dramatically. Arctic sea ice, snow cover, tundra, and permafrost, and subsequently the organisms that rely upon them, are highly vulnerable to climatic variation. While much of the world is dealing with probable future disasters, in the Arctic substantial decreases in sea ice, increased precipitation in the form of rain, and a shift in the timing and predictability of weather events have been already documented.
As a result, reindeer populations are facing grave new environmental conditions that are challenging their interaction with the natural world - an interaction that forms the basis of their survival. Declining reindeer populations ensue, and for those populations that can adapt, for example through migration, their adaptation still stresses the humans who depend upon them.
The reindeer are stressed by numerous effects of global warming. Most worrisome is their increasing inability to obtain lichen and moss, the staples of their diets. A recent study by Jaakko Putkonen of the University of Washington traces the increasing rain in the Arctic to a reduced food supply for reindeer. The heavy rain falls onto the snow due to warmer atmospheric temperatures, and then seeps down into the soil where it freezes into ice. The ice layer covers the lichen and moss in such a way that the reindeer cannot access their foods, and even when they can get through the ice, the lichen and moss are often joined by toxic molds and fungi.
A host of other factors is threatening the existence of one of the world's most beloved animals. In the summer, higher incidences of hoof disease have increased reindeer mortality. Severe blizzards, a consequence of the increased incidence of extreme weather events with climate change, also raise mortality rates. At the same time, warmer summers and autumns mean higher death rates, particularly for the young reindeer calves. Since reindeer have very few sweat glands and retain a heavy insulation layer year-round, higher temperatures are deadly to these Arctic animals. Historical records closely associate increased temperatures with reindeer population reductions, and with global temperatures projected to surpass historical highs, reindeer may become extinct in much of their current habitat. Climate change is also expected to bring about more variability in the weather patterns. Studies have found such variability to reduce the body weight of reindeer, decreasing the populations' vitality and resilience.
In addition, reindeer are migratory animals whose herds alternate between their birthing habitat and their winter habitat. Not only will changes in the climate alter the location and extent of these grounds, for example moving habitats northward as lower areas warm, but changes in the climate and ecosystem disrupt reindeers' access to both breeding grounds and migration routes. For example, loss of permafrost and breaking ice make routes unfeasible for reindeer to traverse. (Sadly, only Santa's reindeer can fly over these areas.) Meanwhile, the severe weather events will increase the energy expended by migrating reindeer, again decreasing their resilience. At the same time, other Arctic species and vegetation will be shifting ranges in response to climatic changes, introducing new competitors for the reindeer and their food base and altering the habitat to which they are adapted.
External to the reindeer population itself, Arctic impacts from climatic warming have affected humans' ability to reach the reindeer populations. For example, increased spring melt, weather variability, and occurrences of extreme weather events have impeded hunters' access to the reindeer. With weaker ice, the safety of herding reindeer has become dubious.
While reindeer populations are currently deemed stable, the observed trends are predicted to amplify in the coming years. For people who have adapted to the harshest environment in the world, adaptability to the changes in reindeer populations are certainly possible, but will require concerted effort combining local indigenous and high-tech scientific knowledge to enable herders, hunters, and most of all cultures to remain resilient in the face of great change.
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