Why more than 200 reindeer died in Norway's Svalbard

This photo was taken in the Svalbard archipelago in June 2019. (Photo: Siri Uldal at the Norwegian Polar Institute)
This photo was taken in the Svalbard archipelago in June 2019. (Photo: Siri Uldal at the Norwegian Polar Institute)

Norwegian researchers discovered more than 200 dead reindeer in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, when they were studying the reindeer population earlier this summer. They starved, and one researcher is convinced that climate change is responsible for this tragedy.

For the past 40 years, researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute have been tracking a group of reindeer in the Svalbard archipelago. This year, between June 25 and July 5, the researchers discovered the bodies of more than 200 reindeer, who had died over the winter. The death toll is much higher than those previously recorded.

"These reindeer died of hunger”

Åshild Ønvik Pedersen is an ecologist with the Norwegian Polar Institute. She lives in Longyearbyen, a town on the island of Spitzberg, which is part of the Svalbard archipelago. She leads the study on the reindeer population on the archipelago.

This year, a group of five of us researchers carried out a study in Adventdalen [Editor’s note: a valley on Spitzberg Island] and in other nearby valleys.

Åshild Ønvik Pedersen is shown here in Adventdalen, where her team studied the local reindeer population between June 25 and July 5. (Photo: Ann Kristin Balto of the Norwegian Polar Institute)

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The reindeer that we found had died of hunger. Climate change means that the winters are much warmer so it rains more. However, when rain falls on snowy ground, it turns into ice. The grass and plants are trapped under ice, which makes it much harder for the reindeer to get to them so they end up dying of hunger. Reindeer also reproduce less in the winter. These factors lead to a shrinking of the population. 

This photo shows another dead reindeer found in Adventdalen during the summer of2017. (Photo: Elin Vinje Jenssen of the Norwegian Polar Institute)

"We are seeing two contradictory trends"

That said, climate change also has other effects on the reindeer. The summers and autumns are much warmer, which means that the grazing season is extended [Editor’s note: this allows reindeer to put on weight and store energy for the long winter months].

Moreover, the warmer seasons mean that there are more plants and grass for the reindeer to graze on. This leads to an increase in their numbers.

So we are seeing two contradictory trends. In Adventdalen, the warm summers affect the reindeer population more than the warmer winters. So, overall, we’ve seen an increase in the number of reindeer in this area.


However, there is the opposite trend in Brøggerhalvøya, a peninsula on the west coast of Spitzberg, where the reindeer population has been decreasing over the past 40 years.

According to the Norwegian Polar Institute, the climate in Svalbard has changed rapidly over the past 40 years. In the 1990s, the winters became warmer and rainier. This trend continued into the 21st century. This past May, a record temperature of 31.2 degrees Celsius (88.16 degrees Fahreinheit) was recorded in northern Russia, very close to the Arctic Circle.


Reindeer graze and rest in Adventdalen during the summer of 2017. (Photo: Elin Vinje Jenssen at the Norwegian Polar Institute.)

Article written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).