Santa in trouble? Reindeer shrink in Arctic as climate changes

OSLO (Reuters) - Reindeer are shrinking on an Arctic island near the North Pole in a side-effect of climate change that has curbed winter food for animals often depicted as pulling Father Christmas' sleigh, scientists said on Monday.

The average weight of adult reindeer on Svalbard, a chain of islands north of Norway, has fallen to 106 lbs. from 121 lbs. in the 1990s as part of sweeping changes to Arctic life as temperatures rise, they said.

"Warmer summers are great for reindeer but winters are getting increasingly tough," Professor Steve Albon, an ecologist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland who led the study with Norwegian researchers, told Reuters.

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Climate change in Norway

Svalbard islands in Norway.

(Photo by: Hermes Images/AGF/UIG via Getty Images)

A view of the Blomstrand Glacier, on June 16, 2016, in Ny-Alesund, Norway. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende toured the glacier, and made remarks about climate change. Kerry is visiting Norway's extreme north to view areas impacted by climate change with melting ice and the opening of new sea lanes.

(EVAN VUCCI/AFP/Getty Images)

Sunlight shines just after midnight on a fjord near the Norwegian Arctic town of Longyearbyen, April 26, 2007. The sea water is normally frozen solid at this time of year but global warming may be warming the region.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

Wild reindeer forage for food on the island of Spitsbergen on the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic circle as the Norwegian islands enter summer 'midnight sun' season.

(Ben Birchall/PA Archive)

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende (C) make a tour of the Blomstrand Glacier on June 16, 2016, in Ny-Alesund, Norway. Kerry is visiting Norway's extreme north to view areas impacted by climate change with melting ice and the opening of new sea lanes.

(LARSEN, HOEKON MOSVOLD/AFP/Getty Images)

A reindeer walks on snow on June 4, 2010 in Ny-Alesund in the Svalbard archipelago.

(MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Dutch scientist Appy Sluijs enters a cave at the bottom of the Longyearbyen glacier April 25, 2007 which has been shrinking fast in recent years. Many experts link the thaw to global warming.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

Svalbard islands in Norway.

(Photo by: Hermes Images/AGF/UIG via Getty Images)

Screen grab from video I shot shows UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon pointing towards glaciers in the distance as Kim Holmen, research director at the Norwegian Polar Institute, shows the UN chief around the atmospheric measuring station in Ny-Aalesund, a climate change research station on the Norwegian island of Svalbard 0n September1, 2009. Ban is on a two-day trip to the Arctic Circle to see first-hand the effects of climate change ahead of key international climate talks in Copenhagen in December.

(JACQUELINE PIETSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

A reindeer is pictured on June 4, 2010 in Ny-Alesund in the Svalbard archipelago.

(MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

The sun shines low in the sky just after midnight over a frozen coastline near the Norwegian Arctic town of Longyearbyen, April 26, 2007. The sea water is normally frozen solid at this time of year but global warming may be warming the region.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

Svalbard islands in Norway.

(Photo by: Hermes Images/AGF/UIG via Getty Images)

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Less chilly winters mean that once-reliable snows fall more often as rain that can freeze into a sheet of ice, making it harder for the herbivores to reach plant food. Some reindeer starve and females often give birth to stunted young.

In summer, however, plants flourish in a food bonanza that ensures healthy females more likely to conceive in autumn - a pregnancy lasts about seven months. The wild herd studied had expanded to about 1,400 animals from 800 since the 1990s.

"So far we have more but smaller reindeer," Albon said of reindeer on Svalbard, about 800 miles from the North Pole. The rising population also means more competition for scarce food in winter.

He noted that one popular children's' book, "Father Christmas" by Raymond Briggs, showed a sleigh pulled by two reindeer. If the animals are smaller and weaker, "will two reindeer be sufficient?" Albon asked.

Arctic temperatures are rising faster than the world average amid a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Most studies of global warming around Svalbard have focused on polar bears that hunt seals at sea, rather than year-round land residents led by reindeer, Arctic foxes and Svalbard rock ptarmigan birds.

Arctic fox numbers have risen slightly because they thrive in severe ice winters by scavenging dead reindeer, said Eva Fuglei, a researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Fram Centre who was not involved in the reindeer study.

"All the weak reindeer die - the sick, the elderly and calves," she told Reuters. But that means foxes struggle to feed the next winter because only the fittest adult reindeer have survived.


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