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Rudolf the red list reindeer

PETER FROST says, whatever President Trump might say, climate change has reduced Arctic reindeer herds by more than half

JUST as I was getting ready to celebrate my atheist Christmas I heard some awful news.  

Climate change over the last 20 years has more than halved the world population of wild reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). 

Exactly the same species is known as caribou in North America, but they are doing just as badly, says a new scientific report. 

Numbers of reindeer have fallen from almost five million to around 2.1 million and the shrinking in numbers continues at a frightening pace.

President Donald Trump will no doubt cry “fake news,” but he’ll be hopping mad when he learns the body that did the research and issued the new report is based in Washington, just a few minutes sleigh ride from the White House. 

The new report on the impact of climate change in the Arctic was released at the American Geophysical Research Union (AGU) meeting this month.
 
The AGU is a not-for-profit organisation bringing together over 62,000 geophysicists from 144 countries. 

AGU activities are focused on the organisation and dissemination of scientific information in the international field of geophysics — that is, atmospheric and ocean science, solid-earth science, hydrologic sciences and space science. 

This latest AGU report reveals that weather patterns and vegetation changes are making the Arctic tundra a much less hospitable place for reindeer.

Some herds have shrunk by more than 90 per cent — “such drastic declines that recovery isn’t in sight,” says the Arctic Report Card that forms a key part of the new report. The report has discovered multiple reasons why a warmer Arctic is worse for reindeer.

Professor Howard Epstein, an environmental scientist from the University of Virginia, who was one of the many scientists involved in the research behind the Arctic Report Card, told the world media that warming in the region showed no signs of abating.

“We see increased drought in some areas due to climate warming and the warming itself leads to a change of vegetation. The lichen that the caribou like to eat grows at the ground level. Warming means other, taller vegetation is growing and the lichen are being out-competed.”

Another major factor is the number of insects. “Warmer climates just mean more bugs in the Arctic,” said Prof Epstein. “It’s said that a nice day for people is a lousy day for caribou.

“If it’s warm and not very windy, the insects are oppressive and the reindeer spend so much energy either getting the bugs off of them or finding places where they can hide from insects.”

Increased rainfall in the Arctic, often falling on snowy ground, leads to hard, frozen icy layers covering the grazing tundra. Reindeer simply cannot push their noses through the ice sheet to reach their food.

Real scientists — not the oil industry apologists that Trump wheels out on occasions — say the growing evidence suggests warming in the Arctic will continue. 

“In all the years of publishing the report card, we see the persistence of the warming continuing to mount,” said Emily Osborne, Arctic research programme manager for the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), “and this is contributing to extreme weather events elsewhere in the world.”

Some other key points from the report included:

Plastic pollution. Tiny microplastic contamination is on the rise in the Arctic just as it is in all oceans, posing a threat to seabirds and marine life that can ingest debris.

Air temperature. For the past five years (2014-18) temperatures have exceeded all previous records since 1900.

Sea ice thinning. In 2018, Arctic sea ice remained younger, thinner, and covered less area than in the past.

Toxic blooms. Warming Arctic Ocean conditions are coinciding with an expansion of harmful algal blooms in the ocean, which threaten food sources.

AGU scientists have also discovered that east Antarctica’s glaciers have begun to wake up in response to warming — clear evidence of unprecedented climate-driven change at both of our planet’s poles.

Meanwhile Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer lives on as part of our Christmas celebrations. How long will it be before reindeer are only a ancient memory on Christmas cards? 

Rudolf was invented as part of a sales campaign by US department store chain Montgomery Ward. A US adman created him in 1939. Santa’s red coat was also invented by another US adman to promote Coca-Cola in December 1931.

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen are Santa’s other reindeer and they first appeared in the 1823 poem A Visit from St Nicholas. Rudolf didn’t feature in this poem.

The story of a bearded old man flying around the world delivering gifts is strange, but not as strange as the real origins of flying reindeer which are pictured on northern standing stones, some thousands of years old. 

Ancient shamans knew the hallucinogenic properties of fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) to give wonderful dreams and visions and sometimes the impression that you could fly. 

Sadly the mushroom was very poisonous, so in order to get the wonderful effects they fed the bright red and white spotted fungus to their reindeer and then drank their urine to enjoy the hallucinogenic properties.

In primitive tribes the time of the winter solstice was the time you would know if your food and fuel stocks would last to the spring. If the stock were sufficient the tribe could celebrate and so many festivals came into being.

So however you mark the winter solstice, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, Alban Arthan, Dong Zhi, Korochun, St Julia’s Day, Yuletide or any of the dozens of other ways people celebrate this time of the year all around the globe enjoy it.

Join with me, pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, be it mulled wine, reindeer pee or anything else and have a seasonal drink. Merry Christmas! 

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