Claim: reindeer suffering in Arctic due to 'extreme weather' supposedly caused by global warming

Remember the last time somebody claimed the Arctic was flooded with water?

susuki_santa_poleAbove: The worst kind of ugly climate propaganda: David Suzuki targets kids at Christmas in the name of climate change

This item from the: Norwegian University of Science and Technology isn’t that bad, but still seems over the top in placing blame on “global warming” for a specific weather pattern.

Extreme weather in the Arctic problematic for people, wildlife

Heavy January rains in the Norwegian arctic archipelago of Svalbard caused unusual icing event

IMAGE: Heavy icing after an extreme rain-on-snow event dramatically increased reindeer mortality on the island archipelago of Svalbard. That had an effect on arctic fox populations and the rest of the…

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The residents of Longyearbyen, the largest town on the Norwegian arctic island archipelago of Svalbard, remember it as the week that the weather gods caused trouble.

Temperatures were ridiculously warm – and reached a maximum of nearly +8 degrees C in one location at a time when mean temperatures are normally -15 degrees C. It rained in record amounts.

Snow packs became so saturated that slushy snow avalanches from the mountains surrounding Longyearbyen covered roads and took out a major pedestrian bridge.

Snowy streets and the tundra were transformed into icy, rain-covered skating rinks that were difficult to navigate with snowmobiles. Flights were cancelled, the airport closed, and travel around town was tricky.

The situation was particularly problematic out on the tundra. Rain falling on snow can percolate to the base of a snowpack where it can pool at the soil surface and subsequently freeze.

That makes it impossible for grazing reindeer to get at their food, for example, and extreme warm spells can even affect temperatures in the permanently frozen ground found throughout the archipelago.

But the extreme event also offered an interdisciplinary group of scientists, from climatologists to biologists to snow geophysicists and structural engineers, a chance to document the event and learn from it. Their cross-disciplinary report, “Warmer and wetter winters: characteristics and implications of an extreme weather event in the High Arctic,” was published on 20 November in Environmental Research Letters.

“We had a unique opportunity to document what happened, and we did,” said Brage Bremset Hansen, the first author on the paper, and co-author Øystein Varpe. “This was a case study from one event…but since it was an extreme event, and with all of our contacts in the different disciplines, we were able to compile this information into one story, which is quite rare.”

Hansen is a biologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics, and Varpe is an associate professor at the University Centre in Svalbard.

IMAGE: If global warming brings more rain-on-snow events and heavy icing to the Arctic, reindeer could have major problems getting at winter food supplies.

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Just a 0.2 Percent Chance of Happening

Co-author Ketil Isaksen, a climatologist from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, said that such an extreme event has a 500-year return period, which means that the probability of it happening in any one year is just 0.2 percent.

At the same time, climatologists say that Svalbard has seen the greatest increase in temperatures of any place in Europe over the last three decades.

And while no one can attribute the event directly to global warming, virtually all climate studies show that the High Arctic, including Svalbard, will become increasingly warmer and wetter over time.

“We expect this to be more likely to happen,” Isaksen said.

Reindeer Mortality Up

As a biologist, Hansen was very interested in how the extreme weather would affect the archipelago’s natural communities. Only four vertebrate species overwinter on Svalbard – the wild Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus), the Svalbard rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta hyperborea), and the sibling vole (Microtus levis), and one animal that eats them all, the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus).

When Hansen and his colleagues compared summer population counts of reindeer after the January 2012 event to counts conducted during the previous summer, they found that the number of reindeer carcasses in many populations was among the highest ever recorded.

But it could have been worse, he said, in part because recent increases in summer temperatures have made for better foraging conditions for Svalbard reindeer overall.

“It wasn’t like there were dead reindeer all over the tundra,” he said. “If this had happened in the colder 1980s, it could have been much worse. …They had a nice winter up to this event, which occurred rather late.”

Rain and Permafrost

Hansen and colleagues have previously published research on the overwintering animal community on Svalbard, suggesting that such extreme events can affect all species. But what makes the new findings unique is the collaboration between different disciplines that enabled researchers to assemble a picture of what happened to Svalbard’s physical environment, and to people living in the outposts of Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, a tiny community with a winter population of about 30 people.

In Ny-Ålesund, for example, it rained nearly 100 mm in one day – which would be more typical of the Norwegian coastal town of Bergen, renowned for its heavy rains. That one-day amount represented a quarter of the precipitation that Ny-Ålesund typically gets in a year.

Isaksen documented a significant increase in ground temperatures in permafrost as deep as 5 metres below the surface as a result of the extreme warming. This temperature increase came on top of a decades-long larger trend of warming of the permafrost on Svalbard, the researchers said. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground that is found throughout the archipelago and the High Arctic. In regions in the Northern Hemisphere where permafrost is found, it occupies approximately 25% (23 million km²) of the land area.

IMAGE: An unusual rain-on-snow event in January 2012 covered tundra on Svalbard with a layer of ice that averaged 15.3 centimeters thick in places. That made it difficult for even snowmobiles…

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Tourism and Infrastructure

And for Svalbard residents, who are some of the most northerly inhabitants on the globe, there were significant socioeconomic effects. During and after the event, it was difficult for snowmobiles to travel out on the tundra on the thick layer of ice, Varpe said.

This thick layer, averaging 15.3 cm, persisted out on the tundra well after the event was over, said Jack Kohler, senior research scientist, glaciology, at the Norwegian Polar Institute.

“The winter rain event leads to the ground-ice formation, and the ice lasts the remainder of the melt season, until it melts, and that is what I would call the significant happening,” Kohler said. “The rain is an event, for sure, but the ice is actually the (big) event.”

The result was a strong decrease in tourism for the rest of the winter, specifically for activities such as guided snowmobile and dogsled tours. Tour numbers dropped by 28 percent compared to the previous winter, and were the lowest ever since 2001, which is when statistics were first continuously kept. The researchers also believe that had a ripple effect on hotel stays and other tourist activities.

Another potential problem exposed by the extreme event was the vulnerability of the town’s infrastructure to avalanches. A major avalanche in June 1953 destroyed the town’s hospital and other buildings, killing three people, but since then, many buildings have been constructed without regard to potential avalanche risks. If Svalbard’s climate continues to warm as our downscaled climate scenarios predict, the likelihood of damaging avalanches will only increase, Hansen and colleagues say.

Hansen is continuing to investigate the consequences of a warmer arctic on Svalbard’s natural communities and human population with a research project called VINTERREGN (Winter rain). Of particular interest is whether or not plants, which usually do not grow taller than a couple of inches at this latitude, can withstand being completely covered in ice for several months.

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70 thoughts on “Claim: reindeer suffering in Arctic due to 'extreme weather' supposedly caused by global warming

    • The high Arctic is an ocean, Thus ocean currents can cause drastic weather changes. In 2013 the Arctic experienced low surface temperatures in summer for example, due in part to ocean currents. This is another data point or package in this puzzle. Extremes are common in the high north and in interior areas of continents.

    • It is when it is about heatwaves and record high temperatures but not when it is about heavy snow and freezing temps – you should know the rules by now. /sarc

    • Santa Claus can move to Buffalo, NY. Plenty of snow and frigid cold there. Closer to NYC for the Macy Day Parade, too, a bonus point.

  1. I can see how the bad weather is bad for Reindeer. This doesn’t seem like propaganda.
    Sometimes it rains.

    • I think Anthony’s point is how suzuki is utilizing this as propaganda.
      Yes, the weather is bad but he is asking for money for Santa… (biting my tongue, but there is a lot of imaginary correlation that could be done here)

  2. “Temperatures were ridiculously warm – and reached a maximum of nearly +8 degrees C in one location at a time when mean temperatures are normally -15 degrees C. It rained in record amounts.”
    Ridiculously? Does that mean that weather has fallen victim to our judgements? And especially when they compare a temperature to an average. Two different things, bubba. Sloppy ‘science’ and dumb journalism.

    • I can assure you +8C is ridiculously warm in Svalbardian winter. It would be lot 1500 km south, inland. But it is still weather, not ‘unprecedented’ phenomen.
      CAGW theory predicts ‘extreme’ events, which is difficult to not happen since almost any *other* climatic change will lead to new records been set as well. More extremes is a kind of null prediction.
      The only way to falsify would be extreme moderateness, record breaking dullness, which probably would soon be declared as a symptom of global climate change.

    • Well what about this ladies and gentlemen? It is a story about this very Svalbard and its reindeer. It’s worserer than we thought!

      National Geographic – 22 August, 2014
      Svalbard Reindeer: Thriving Again on the Tundra
      …..Depleted by hunting over more than six decades, the Svalbard reindeer has been recovering strongly under Norway’s conservation measures, and there may now be as many as 10,000 of them on the islands, which together have a land area roughly the size of West Virginia…..
      This summer Svalbard reindeer are getting plenty to eat. A study published in July found that the reindeer are in a boom cycle, possibly because of warming temperatures in the archipelago. Plants that reindeer eat during the relatively short Arctic summer are available for longer periods as the region warms, according to an article published in National Geographic Weird & Wild.
      http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/22/svalbard-reindeer-thriving-again-on-the-tundra/

      Can I rest my case?

      • Let me iterate. If it is down 20 degrees, it might be weather, or it might be climate change with more frequent extremes.
        Here we have extremely normal -1C. And one inch of snow.

    • That being said, some places have less humidity in air and they really seldom get rain in the middle of winter on top of snow. Svalbard is an island but since it is so arctic, the winter tended to be cold with less liquid dihydromonoxide falling.
      Reindeers dying during the winter is not that rare export, however.

  3. “It wasn’t like there were dead reindeer all over the tundra,” he said. “If this had happened in the colder 1980s, it could have been much worse. …They had a nice winter up to this event, which occurred rather late.”
    If we believed that the warmer temperatures today are due entirely to human emissions of greenhouse gases like these people do, a more accurate headline would be:
    Man Made Global Warming Saves Countless Reindeer From Horrible Frozen Death!
    Gee…why are they so negative?

  4. How “unusual” was this event? Never before? Once in 100 years? We all know the earth is warming to some degree, and things like this will happen more often, but it proves nothing in regard to CAGW, CO2 multiplier, etc.

    • Here’s a bit of historical perspective, from a paper written in 1982, a paper I had on-hand:
      WINTER MORTALITY AND POPULATION TRENDS OF REINDEER ON SVALBARD, NORWAY. E. REIMERS. Arctic and Alpine Research, Vol. 14, No. 4, 1982, pp. 295-300
      ABSTRACT:
      “During the winter of 1975/76 on Edgeøya, Svalbard, an estimated 23% of the reindeer population starved to death. This implies a population net decrease of 16% and a 65% loss of the calves entering the winter in 1975. Animal body weights and fat accumulation in mid-summer indicate that the surviving reindeer seemed to recover rapidly. These data support the hypothesis that weather conditions may limit arctic populations of Rangifer without a preceding overgrazing of ranges.”
      From the conclusions:
      “Skoog (1968) reviewed the literature on the relation-ship between weather conditions and mortality of reindeer/caribou and predicted that snow and ice cover would limit populations on the Arctic Island.
      His prediction has been proven correct in the Canadian Arctic where the Peary caribou suffered a population decrease of 90% from 1961 to 1974 (Tener, 1963; Miller et al., 1977).
      The major part of this mortality occurred in 1972 to 1974 and was caused by heavy snow and/or ice cover preventing the animals from reaching food. [SJC: “ice cover” implies rain over snow]
      The data from Edgeøya support the hypothesis that weather conditions in winter may limit populations of Rdngifer even without overgrazing of ranges.”
      Susan Crockford, PolarBearScience.

      • Here is some more.

        Abstract – 1977
        Population dynamics in two subpopulations of reindeer in Svalbard
        This paper deals with animal density, age and sex distribution, and mortality patterns in two subpopulations of Svalbard reindeer which have been protected since 1925.
        …The reason for this might be that population regulation takes place in wintertime, due to adverse climate, when the vegetation is covered by ice. The die-off occurs due to starvation related to temporary reductions of available range rather than to overgrazing. ….
        http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1550529?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104606709031

        On balance it looks like global warming has been good for reindeer population in Svalbard. That poor researcher Hansen has locked himself into a study of a warming Svalbard. What if it gets colder?

      • When Reindeer population declines it is due to climate change, when Reindeer population grows it is due to unknown causes.
        Is that what you mean by both? Doesn’t sound like both it sounds like climate-man speak with forked tongue.

    • dp
      the reindeer of Svalbard has boomed over 30 years, some say 20 years, during our period of globally ‘hottest temperatures evaaaaah’. That is the paradox that warmists must overcome.

  5. I noticed they spoke of the last 30 years showing warming. I’d like to see a chart showing warming over the first 15 years vs. the second 15. Has the hiatus slowed warming there too?

  6. Many weather items are highly variable, such as rain in deserts. Yet, such events have great impact on the land. Arroyos are an example.
    Rain-on-Snow events are, likewise, problematic.
    http://water.usgs.gov/nrp/proj.bib/Publications/2007/mccabe_clark_etal_2007.pdf
    In the late 1940s there was an ice event in the area of Marienville (Forest County) and Sheffield (Warren County) in northwest Pennsylvania. Many thousands of trees were impacted by the accumulated ice. As a pre-teen, I was astounded by the “broken” look of the forest. I do not recall reading that a similar event has happened in that area since then.
    As the host says, this story “… isn’t that bad, but still seems over the top.”
    Maybe we can blame it on a lack of perspective.

  7. An unindoctrinated biologist might look at the increase in reindeer population caused by good conditions during the summer and look at a winter die off as normal and expected. This is quite normal for all ruminants.
    If they claim this is an unusual event caused by man-made emissions of CO2 then they should provide some evidence from the paleoclimate record that supports their hypothesis. It appears that Svalbard was warmer throughout most of the Holocene and is currently still relatively cold.
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00193533
    http://www.polarresearch.net/index.php/polar/article/viewFile/6712/7545

  8. Unusual weather is normal. Harsh weather is normal. Mild weather is normal. Average weather is – well, unusual.

  9. Gosh!
    I guess Santa was grounded during the Medieval Warm Period.
    I hope he’s not grounded this year. I’m sure there are lots of people that would welcome a lump of coal this winter.

  10. Co-author Ketil Isaksen, a climatologist from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, said that such an extreme event has a 500-year return period, which means that the probability of it happening in any one year is just 0.2 percent.

    How strange are icing events in Svalbard?

    Paper – 1984
    Body composition and population regulation of Svalbard reindeer
    ….In winter 1975 – 76 precipitation and number of days with rain were above normal (Table 2), and several ice layers formed over the vegetation (Kastnes 1979)…..
    http://septentrio.uit.no/index.php/rangifer/article/download/499/475
    ==================
    Paper – 2010
    Icing events trigger range displacement in a high-arctic ungulate
    …..Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus plathyrynchus) have small home ranges and may therefore be vulnerable to local “locked pasture” events (ice layers limit access to plant forage) due to ground-ice formation……
    …The population-level responses of reindeer to previous icing events have been quantified (Kohler and Aanes 2004);….
    There was no icing event predicted for the winter of 1994–1995, while the icing event dates for the other winters were 3 December 1995, 25 January 1997, and 14 December 1997. These icing events were all due to rain-on-snow events with .10 mm of precipitation at above 0 temperatures….
    http://www.polar-academy.com/Publication/Stien%20et%20al%20%202010%20Icing%20displacement%20Ecology.pdf
    ==================
    Google Scholar search results snippet
    Population dynamics in two subpopulations of reindeer in Svalbard
    heavy icing in some winters. …
    [source page]
    ==================

    • Jimbo, I think you have the right approach. This unusual weather is recurrent, and there isn’t evidence that the recurrences are more common than before. This one just happened to occur during a time of, ahem, “heightened alertness” to the potential harms of warming.

    • Governments always need something to keep the population scared of. Fear is handy-dandy political tool for manipulating a populace. Maybe one day we will have leadership that leads a populace with a vision instead of manipulate them with a fear.
      Meanwhile what’s really funny about fearful things is that the one thing that is an immediate catastrophic threat to civilization is the tens of thousands of nuclear war heads across the globe. The cold war is over and all that, great, but the bombs are still there…available instantly for immediate use.

  11. When Arctic sea ice maximum returns to peak levels in coming decades, the Svalbard reindeer will be able to spend the winter in Iceland, migrating over the pack ice floes.

  12. “It wasn’t like there were dead reindeer all over the tundra,” he said. Oh dear, a bit of hard cheese there then. Just think what that could have done for the Warmist ideology. Oh well, better luck next time.

  13. Whether or not CO2 is involved, if the warmer weather causes wetter conditions, e.g. freezing rain instead of pure snow, it will kill more of the animals that can not obtain cover and stay dry. If conditions like this do in fact become more prevalent with global warming, whatever the cause, they will cull the deer herds. I think everybody who spends time outdoors in the cold appreciates how important it is to stay dry.

    • Being cold, but with enough nutrients to fuel the body’s “furnace” is one thing.
      Take away those nutrients and death is not long in coming, wet or dry.
      The survival experts have a saying, “cotton kills”.
      Cotton gets wet, stays wet and sucks out your body heat.
      Better to wear a synthetic or wool.

  14. There is no way suzuki is friends with the real santa. The real santa LOVES coal. Hes got his own mine. He sure doesn’t buy all that coal for the stockings of the naughty on the open market.

  15. Every now and then this same phenomenon happens in Mongolia. The result is that animal starve because they cannot get through the hard surface. Sometimes the hard surface is below the snow top and not easily seen. The cause is a sudden warming (pushed by a polar vortex, for example) which creates an ice layer on the ground or on compacted snow. When it happens on a large scale, millions of animals starve and freeze to death before spring.

  16. “such an extreme event has a 500-year return period”
    So why should we assume that this was the first time that global warming caused this extreme event if it has happened many times before?

  17. Dave Sepuku ….I mean Suzuki, who is an atheist has an article on Santa Claus’s home melting? I know he is a mythical figure associated with a supposedly Christian celebration. When you get over the target, that is when to expect the most flak.

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