How reindeer are slowing global warming (not by flying us our presents, sadly)

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Reindeer have attained their greatest fame thanks to Clement Moore and "Twas the Night Before Christmas," which first gave the world the notion of eight flying reindeer pulling Santa Claus' sleigh. Real reindeer don't have anything as impressive as that on their resumes, but give them time: New research suggests their love of eating shrubs could help cool off the rapidly warming Arctic tundra.

High northern latitudes have already experienced some of the most dramatic effects of climate change, as permafrost melts and once desolate regions turn green. And while that sounds like one of the relatively benign aspects of global warming, those changes threaten the fragile existing environment. Worse, the increased shrub cover allows more of the sun's heat to be absorbed at the surface, exacerbating warming more quickly. These aren't small differences: Shrubs absorb about 80 to 90 percent of the incoming heat, whereas the white snow reflects most heat.

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Reindeer farming in Russia
Reindeers graze in the tundra area during sunset in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 26, 2016. Picture taken November 26, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Reindeer herders cook and have a meal inside a tent in the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 27, 2016. Picture taken November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Herders cut off reindeer antlers inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Reindeer antlers cut off by herders lie inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herder smokes while selecting and sorting reindeer inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Herders select and sort reindeer inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Herders select and sort reindeer inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Herders select and sort reindeer inside the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herder sits inside the enclosure where they select and sort reindeer in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Herders select and sort reindeer inside an enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside an enclosure as herders select and sort them in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A girl watches herders selecting and sorting reindeer near the enclosure in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A man stands at a site, which is holy for local residents, during the sunrise in the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 26, 2016. Picture taken November 26, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside an enclosure as herders select and sort them during sunrise in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside an enclosure as herders select and sort them in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A view shows a tent belonging to reindeer herders in the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 27, 2016. Picture taken November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY. 
A barrel with a sign "Lukoil" is seen in the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 26, 2016. Picture taken November 26, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside the enclosure as herders select and sort them in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herder walks with reindeers along the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 27, 2016. Picture taken November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
An Orthodox church is seen in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 25, 2016. Picture taken November 25, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herder stops for reindeers to have a rest while riding along the tundra area in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 27, 2016. Picture taken November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
A herd of reindeers is seen inside an enclosure as herders select and sort them in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 28, 2016. Picture taken November 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Farm employees process reindeer carcasses in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Farm employees process reindeer skin in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
Farm employees process reindeer carcasses in the settlement of Krasnoye in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin 
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While it's asking a lot for environments to cope with these rapid, human-driven changes, sometimes the natural world does us a solid. In this case, the grazing patterns of reindeer in the Scandinavian Arctic reveal that they can increase reflectivity enough to offset the shrubbery's warming effect, according to researchers at Umeå University in Sweden. They found the difference between light and heavy grazing could have a big effect on the regional energy balance, roughly equivalent to the effect of doubling atmospheric carbon over a given patch of land.

That sounds dramatic, but the effects of heavy grazing also complex and not completely straightforward.

For instance, though the surface of heavily grazed land absorbed less heat, the soil beneath the surface was hotter in heavily grazed land than it was in its lightly grazed counterparts. These hot soil temperatures could help microbes break down the soil and release carbon. "Although grazing might be beneficial in terms of decreasing the net radiation, it might not be in term of releasing carbon into the atmosphere," they write.

Even so, the researchers are optimistic about the potential of reindeer — not to mention other herbivores — to reshape the land in ways that can potentially slow warming. Reindeer, they said, could end up being an important regional factor shaping the climate — though most parts of the Arctic don't have as many reindeer as the part in their study.

Reindeer could be doing their part to help offset climate change, even if it's only a little bit. It obviously can't solve everything, but they're giving us a present Santa would be proud of.

The post How Reindeer Are Slowing Global Warming (Not By Flying Us Our Presents, Sadly) appeared first on Vocativ.

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