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Adapting to climate changes

Torgeir Kismul Matre and Åshild Ønvik Pedersen have found a nice place to have lunch during the field work. FOTO: Eirik Palm

Adapting to climate changes

Climate change may make life easier for reindeer herds in Adventdalen and Reindalen, but for the animals in Brøggerhalvøya the future is uncertain.

The five counters are in semicircle discussing the route and distribution of terrain. During the next few days they will trawl Adventdalen and the side valleys looking for reindeer to be registered by sex and age (yearling or adult), and carefully enter the observations in logbooks.

Then Lukas Ulbrych, Aino Kokkonen, Øystein Overrein, Torgeir Kismul Matre and Åshild Ønvik Pedersen begin their quest.

Longer growing season
Svalbard reindeer are considered a keystone species because they affect the tundra ecosystems, are sensitive to climate change and because they are hunted at various locations on Spitsbergen. It is also a cousin of reindeer on the mainland, but found only in Svalbard and is a priority species for monitoring under the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna.

Last year was a record year. Scientists counted an unprecedented number of animals in and around Adventdalen, and the average population has stabilized at a far higher number than only 10 to 20 years ago.

"We expect that it will go down a little from last year," says Pedersen, who heads the census organized by the Norwegian Polar Institute.

"We are trying to understand the production of biomass, what it means that production has expanded at both ends and what a longer growing season does for the animals," she says. "Could it be that they go into winter in better condition? We hope to be able to say something about this before long."

Dead animals

The teams spread out in a short time. Kokkonen, who has participated "seven or eight times," started counting in Ny-Ålesund and has been in Svalbard for a decade now. Ulbrych is participating for the tenth time after being recruited as a student, while Matre, a former student at The University Centre in Svalbard, is participating for the fifth time. Matre is now studying medicine in Bergen, but spending part of his holiday counting reindeer. Overrein is participating for the first time, but has experience with both counting grouse and monitoring polar bear dens at Kvitøya.

Kokkonen and Ulbrych go higher up, while Overrein, Pedersen and Matre divide Todalen between them as they head off for the registering.

"I think there will be some dead animals because of the winter," Pedersen says while pulling out a set of binoculars. "At the same time, there has been high levels of productivity."

A bit further, five reindeer are spotted. One bull and four yearlings, she declares.


The counting expeditions are conducted annually using the same routes and patterns. The five participants follow regular routes year after year, so the fluctuations in the populations of Brøggerhalvøya and Adventdalen are well documented.

Another counting expedition in Adventdalen is conducted through The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø. Nicholas Tyler is finalizing their registrations for 2015.

The two expeditions are not a joint effort, but together they provide third parties with more accurate findings.

Changes are influenced by weather conditions and availability of food, and scientists note climate change has both positive and negative consequences for reindeer herds.
On the one hand, there are difficult winters where ice covers the snow, making it more difficult for reindeer to find food. This increases the mortality rate, with calves and old animals being the most susceptible.

On the other hand, climate change is resulting in longer growing seasons, which means reindeer are getting longer periods of summer grazing and are therefore better equipped to face the winter.

In 2015, a record number of reindeer were counted in Adventdalen and the surrounding valleys, while the mortality rate was low. Tyler's team reached the same conclusion.

Uncertainty at Brøgger

The herds in Adventdalen appear to be doing well. In addition, there is a fixed count of reindeer at Ny-Alesund during the winter. Researchers are more anxious about climate change there making circumstances difficult for both animals and the counters.

"It has started to become a challenge because the reindeer prefer ground higher up and away from the ice," Pedersen says. "We saw there was a shift in the 2000s."
How many reindeer are actually in Svalbard?

"That's the big question," she says. "I would like to know. We are in the process of obtaining an overview."

But in the meantime it is clear reindeer at Brøggerhalvøya have had tough years. Last year was the first since 2000 the reindeer herd did not have any reproduction. Pedersen says she believes there is a chance the population there could die out over time.

"If you're thinking about very long term, it can happen," Pedersen says.

"The absence of sea ice in winter means that the deer are 'stuck' at Brøgger. If they encounter worse and worse conditions they may disappear - in the most extreme scenario."

The changes are also resulting in new feeding habits, with some reindeer at Brøggerhalvøya now eating seaweed.

Opposite changes

It's noon and time for lunch. The counters meet at a red cottage on a ridge in the valley and sit down.

"We need to calibrate ourselves. There are big differences in the animals. Some have come much further in the development of antlers. But the female reindeers have slightly more feminine faces with snub noses, almost like those of a Pointer," says Overrein, who has more than 40 years of experience in natural resource management and was an environmental protection advisor to the Governor of Svalbard from 2001 to 2004. 

The reindeer count in Adventdalen has never been higher and Pedersen says she believes is may be due to climate change extending the growing season at each end.

The situation is reversed on the west coast as a record amount of snow fell at Brøggerhalvøya during the winter, with a coat of ice frequently covering the deep snow.

(Translated by Mark Sabbatini)

Se bildet større

Øystein Overrein, Aino Kokkonen, Lukas Ulbrych, Torgeir Kismul Matre and Åshild Ønvik Pedersen are preparing for a new day counting reindeers. Several kilometers are waiting. FOTO: Eirik Palm

Se bildet større

Five reindeers are located. The number of reindeers in Adventdalen has increased the latest years. FOTO: Eirik Palm

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