Is climate change killing Santa’s helpers?

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Boris Johnson’s second lockdown is making many of us worry about Christmas. Will we be able to see our family? Will Granny and Grandpa be forced to join via Zoom? What if we can’t get to those naff shops we only ever visit the day before Christmas when you’re desperately trying to find anything, anything will do, for your 14 year old cousins? And whilst our worries seem very relevant, across the sea and towards the Northern Lights, a very different series of worries are going through the minds of Sami reindeer herders as they prepare themselves for yet another winter that may turn out catastrophically.

In 2013, 63,000 reindeer on the Russian Yamal peninsula starved to death. The cause? Climate change. Reindeer are expertly adapted for life in the extreme cold, and the Arctic is their perfect playground. Long cold winters with metres of snow coverage barely holds them back from foraging for tasty lichens which can easily sustain the large herds throughout the winter. And yet as our planet slowly warms, permafrost melts just a little more, and sea levels creep up, it seems another victim of this ruthless tirade could end our fairy-tale stories of Christmas.

In 2013, 63,000 reindeer on the Yamal peninsula starved to death

The cause of these deaths are known as ‘rain-on-snow’ events. The result of global temperatures rising and winters warming up. Even just a couple days warmer weather results in rain, instead of snow. When this rain falls on the snow cover, it turns to ice. And no matter how well adapted the reindeer are at pushing through snow with their antlers or hooves to get to their food below, they just can’t get through ice.  And these once-rare ‘rain-on-snow’ events are only getting more and more frequent. As winter temperatures tiptoe up past 0°C, and venture into the positives, these events will have massive impacts on the ability of these animals to find sufficient grazing in the winter months.

And yet research is suggesting that reindeer might even be key weapons against climate change. Studies focusing on the effect of grazing suggest land where reindeer have passed through, increases the amount of light reflected off the surface of the Earth, or to put it scientifically, increases the albedo. How does this prevent climate change? Well, reindeer browse back tall shrubs and dark, bushy grasses, leaving vegetation with a higher reflectivity. Generally, dark surfaces reflect a low amount of solar energy, whereas light surfaces have a high reflection rate. This is hugely important in the maintenance of permafrost throughout the Arctic. The higher the albedo, the more light reflected, and the less solar energy being absorbed by the cold Arctic soils. Cold soils mean a cold permafrost, and a cold permafrost means carbon stays locked up and doesn’t get released into the atmosphere. All very good things for our planet.

Research is suggesting that reindeer might be key weapons against climate change

And so this paradoxical cycle, of climate change dragging down reindeer numbers and reduced reindeer numbers negatively impacting climate change, continues. So, as a plea going out to everyone this Christmas. For all those thinking of making New Year’s Resolutions to cut down on your carbon footprint or be slightly more ecologically aware. Spare a thought for our reindeer and our planet, the two go hand in hand.

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