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December 26, 2004
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What You Can Do about Global Warming?

Reindeer Research Program - University of Alaska Fairbanks

Rangifer.net - "Human Role in Reindeer / Caribou Systems"

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In the future, Santa's reindeer might have trouble finding enough to eat. As this ScienCentral News video reports, it's a result of global warming.

Frozen Food

The North Pole is a cold place, and that's just the way reindeer like it. But climatologists say global warming is affecting their snowy world.

"One of the impacts that scientists are most convinced is going to happen as the earth warms up, is a change in the ratio of snow to rain," says Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute. "As the earth warms up, we’re going to get more rain and less snow."

That's a problem for the reindeer because, in cold climates, rain falling on snow creates ice; scientists call this a rain-on-snow event. If it's thick enough, the ice can keep the reindeer from their main food supply, small plants beneath the snow.

image: ABC News
"In the winter, the animals have to dig thru the snow and access these lichens and mosses or their food sources right at the soil surface," says Jaakko Putkonen, a professor at University of Washington's Quaternary Research Center. "If you put an ice layer either on top of the snow or right at the soil surface, there is no way that the animals can get thru the ice layer. It's just physically impossible. They cannot access their food."

While the reindeer might not starve right away, they do have to work harder to get to their food or find non-icy areas to eat, which drains the energy they usually have stored away to survive the long winter. This also causes both physical and mental stress, and would take its toll on the younger and weaker animals first.

Effects like these would be most problematic for reindeer which live in a "homogeneous environment"—like a vast snowy tundra without much else. Animals in areas with "heterogeneous environments"—with trees and shrubs, etc.—might not fare as bad.

"A single environmental event has a diversity of effects on a heterogeneous landscape. All are not bad," says Greg Finstad, program manager of the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "If a rain-on-snow event occurs on the coast it snows in the higher elevations, if the rain-on-snow occurs in the high elevations the rain in the lower elevations melts the snow… As every reindeer herder worth his salt knows: if it rains on top of the snow [in a heterogeneous environment] and forms a crust you move your deer to the trees or tall shrubs because the vegetation intercepts the rain, the snow is deeper to absorb the rain. And your reindeer, although they must dig through deeper snow to find food, will do just fine until the wind at the higher elevations sublimates the ice."

More Rain, Less Snow

reindeer sled
image: ABC News
Putkonen developed a climate model of soil heat generation and snow to predict the effects of climate change on reindeer-heavy areas like northern Alaska and Canada. "Basically what this model was showing to us is that the area affected by rain-on-snow is going to increase by about 40 percent in about a hundred years, which is a huge change," says Putkonen. "Not only will we get more of these rain-on-snow events in the future, based on the best models that are available these days, but also that area where you get the rain-on-snow is going to shift further north. Basically, what is going to happen to reindeer and caribou is that they are pushed further north."

Such a forced migration would not only affect the reindeer, but the people who depend on them for food, shelter, and business. And migrating south isn't much of an option. Reindeer survive where they do because they can exploit a niche in the food supply—the lichens and mosses under the snow that other animals did not evolve to survive on. If they had to live in an area where they were not exploiting this food niche, there would be more competition from other animals that live in warmer climates.

It's also important to note that global warming is neither the only nor even the most important stress on reindeer these days. Population growth of people is a much more immediate concern.

Putkonen's research was published in the February, 2003 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, and was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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