Quantcast

Reindeer Numbers Have Fallen by More than Half in 2 Decades

Animals
A reindeer in Sweden. Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd) / GNU Free Documentation License

It's a sad Christmas for the world's reindeer—the antlered Arctic grazers associated with all things Santa Claus. Their numbers have fallen by more than half in the past 20 years, and climate change is likely to blame.

The latest numbers come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2018 Arctic Report Card, which listed the increasing impacts of global warming on the earth's northernmost region, as EcoWatch has already reported. But the loss of Rangifer tarandus—called caribou in North America and Greenland and reindeer in Siberia and Europe—is of note because it threatens to further throw Arctic ecosystems and cultures out of whack. Reindeer are important prey for wolves and biting flies, and a key source of food and clothing for indigenous groups.


"If you look at the [top] Northern resources, that shape the culture of northern communities and aboriginal people, what they have in common is caribou and or wild reindeer, no matter where they are in the circumpolar North," Don Russell, lead author of the Report Card's essay on reindeer, told Vox.

Locations of the major caribou or reindeer herds across the ArcticNOAA

The report found that reindeer and caribou herds have declined by 56 percent in the past two decades—that's a decrease of 2.6 million reindeer from a population of 4.7 million to a population of 2.1 million. Five herds in Alaska and Canada were particularly at risk: their populations have declined by more than 90 percent and showed no signs of rebounding. While it is normal for caribou and reindeer herds to swell and shrink, some herds are at all-time lows since record-keeping began.

"The fact that these herds are declining shouldn't be a shock—they do it all the time," Russell told Vox. "But they're at such low levels, you start to be concerned ... If we return in 10 years and [their numbers] have gone down further, that would be unprecedented."

Current vs. peak estimates for the size of reindeer/ caribou herds.NOAA

Scientists don't know exactly what is causing the decline in herd numbers, but it is likely a variety of climate-linked factors caused by warmer summers and winters.

  1. Food Shortage: Caribou subsist on lichen, which grows on the ground. But warmer temperatures encourage taller plants to grow. "Warming means other, taller vegetation is growing and the lichen are being out-competed," University of Virginia environmental science professor Howard Epstein, who helped with the research behind the report, told BBC News.
  2. Bug Off: Warmer weather also means more insects. The caribou then spend their energy hiding from them or fending them off, instead of looking for food. "It's said that a nice day for people is a lousy day for caribou," Epstein told BBC News.
  3. Rainy Days: Warmer winters, on the other hand, mean more rain falls than snow. The rain then freezes into a layer of ice that the reindeer cannot break through to reach food, BBC News explained. In one incident in 2013, ice cover in Russia meant that 61,000 reindeer starved to death, Vox reported.

These factors have been shown to impact individual herds. Warmer Julys and freezing rain from September to December were shown to explain 64 percent of the variability in adult caribou cow survival in the herd in Bathurst, Canada, the report said.

Editor's note: This post has been updated for clarity. Reindeer population figures have been added to the percentages.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Bumblebees flying and pollinating a creeping thyme flower. emeliemaria / iStock / Getty Images

It pays to pollinate in Minnesota.

Read More Show Less
Aerial view of icebergs on Arctic Ocean in Greenland. Explora_2005 / iStock / Getty Images

The annual Arctic thaw has kicked off with record-setting ice melt and sea ice loss that is several weeks ahead of schedule, scientists said, as the New York Times reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Sled dog teams pull researchers from the Danish Meteorological Institute through meltwater on the Greenland ice sheet in early June, 2019. Danish Meteorological Institute / Steffen M. Olsen

By Jon Queally

In yet the latest shocking image depicting just how fast the world's natural systems are changing due to the global climate emergency, a photograph showing a vast expanse of melted Arctic ice in Greenland — one in which a pair of sled dog teams appear to be walking on water — has gone viral.

Read More Show Less
CAFOs often store animal waste in massive, open-air lagoons, like this one at Vanguard Farms in Chocowinity, North Carolina. Bacteria feeding on the animal waste turns the mixture a bright pink. picstever / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Tia Schwab

It has been almost a year since Hurricane Florence slammed the Carolinas, dumping a record 30 inches of rainfall in some parts of the states. At least 52 people died, and property and economic losses reached $24 billion, with nearly $17 billion in North Carolina alone. Flood waters also killed an estimated 3.5 million chickens and 5,500 hogs.

Read More Show Less
Members of the NY Renews coalition gathered before New York lawmakers reached a deal on the Climate and Communities Protection Act. NYRenews / Twitter

By Julia Conley

Grassroots climate campaigners in New York applauded on Monday after state lawmakers reached a deal on sweeping climate legislation, paving the way for the passage of what could be some of the country's most ambitious environmental reforms.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
In this picture taken on June 4, an Indian boatman walks amid boats on the dried bed of a lake at Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, on the eve of World Environment Day. Sam Panthaky / AFP / Getty Images

By Julia Conley

Nearly 50 people died on Saturday in one Indian state as record-breaking heatwaves across the country have caused an increasingly desperate situation.

Read More Show Less
A man carries a poster in New York City during the second annual nationwide March For Science on April 14, 2018. Kena Betancur / Getty Images

By Will J. Grant

In an ideal world, people would look at issues with a clear focus only on the facts. But in the real world, we know that doesn't happen often.

People often look at issues through the prism of their own particular political identity — and have probably always done so.

Read More Show Less

YinYang / E+ / Getty Images

In a blow to the Trump administration, the Supreme Court ruled Monday to uphold a Virginia ban on mining uranium, Reuters reported.

Read More Show Less