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  • Writer's pictureKimberley Megis

New Victims of Climate Change in the Arctic

These days, climate change is nothing new. No longer a fringe topic, we hear about the potentially devastating effects that climate change could cause nearly every day. For most of us, though, climate change remains somewhat esoteric, something to worry about in the future. But in some places – like the arctic – climate change is already very tangible. No longer something to think about in the future, climate change in the arctic is happening now – and the changes are startling.

What arctic animals will climate change affect how will it affect these animals? Climate change doesn’t exactly pick and choose, and ultimately, the entire balance of the arctic ecosystem is changing thanks to climate change. But in this article, we will focus on two arctic species in particular: the Alaskan salmon and the Svalbard reindeer.

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This is the changing face of the arctic thanks to climate change. We think climate change is a problem for the future, but in the arctic, it is happening now. Photo by: Mario Hagen (Pixabay)

Arctic Animals Affected by Climate Change: Alaskan Salmon

As I was hiking and camping along rivers in Alaska in July, I came across hundreds of salmon carcasses. Of course, this sight is nothing out of the ordinary: at the end of their life cycle, salmon always swim back upstream to the exact place where they were born in order to spawn, and then die.

Salmon are amazing animals. Their life cycle begins in fresh water where the eggs remain during winter until they hatch in the spring. Depending on the species, young salmon (called fry) can spend up to a year or more in their natal stream. Chinook fry usually spend less than 5 months in freshwater, while coho fry may spend over a year. Both pink and chum then head directly to the sea, whereas sockeye fry tend to migrate first to a lake, spending 1-2 years there before heading to sea. When they finally reach the ocean, some species remain in coastal waters and others migrate northward to feedings grounds.

Salmon spend at least one and up to eight years in the ocean before journeying back to their natal streams to spawn. Once the salmon reach fresh water, they stop feeding, their bodies instinctively prepare for spawning, and their organs, except for the reproductive organs, start to disintegrate. The closer the fish get to their natal stream, the more their appearance changes. It always surprises me how they can jump up waterfalls with such mutilated bodies.

This is what piqued my interest during my Alaskan hike. The salmon carcasses I was seeing didn’t look anything like the ones I saw in previous years. These salmon were nowhere near their spawning grounds, and they looked completely healthy. They were obviously at the beginning of their journey, yet they were already dead.

Spawning Alaskan salmon. Photo by: Kimberley Megis

Alaskan Salmon and the 2019 Heat Wave

I wasn’t the only one who noticed that something abnormal was going on with Alaskan salmon that summer. Locals started reporting hordes of dead salmon floating in the Alaskan rivers, especially chum salmon down the Koyokuk River. According to CNN, Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, director of the Yukon Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, took a specialist group of climate scientists on an expedition along the Koyokuk River at the end of July. There, the scientists examined 850 dead unspawned salmon and estimated that the true total was likely four to ten times larger. The scientists looked for signs of lesions, parasites and infections on the fish, but according to Quinn-Davidson, nearly all the salmon had "beautiful eggs still inside them".

Interestingly enough, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared July 2019 the hottest month on record for the planet. Alaska in particular had its warmest July ever since statewide records began back in 1925. The temperatures rose up to 30°C between July 7 and 11, well above the seasonal average highs of less than 20°C.

Because the heat wave coincided perfectly with the dates of the locals’ reports, the scientists concluded that heat stress was the cause of the mass deaths. The salmon, used to cooler waters and unable to take refuge in deeper pools as the water level was also lower than average, died thanks to rising temperatures.

What happened to the fish is not without consequences, as ecosystems depend on them. Alaskan salmon play a key role in bringing nutrients from the ocean back into rivers where they feed the trees and predators such as bears, wolves and eagles. They are also food for ocean-dwelling animals like orcas, whose own existence in some areas are threatened as salmon populations dwindle. The food chain is only as strong as its weakest link, though, and if the salmon disappear, the beings that depend on them are bound to the same fate.

Svalbard reindeer and other arctic caribou populations are also suffering, thanks to climate change. Photo by: Free-Photos (Pixabay)

200 Svalbard Reindeer Die of Starvation

Salmon aren’t the only animals affected by climate change, though. In 2019, 200 Svalbard reindeer also became victims of climate change.

The 10,000 wild Svalbard reindeer that call the Norwegian archipelago home have been monitored by scientists of the Norwegian Polar Institute since 1978. When the group arrived in March, 2019 to survey the population, they were surprised to find the remains of more than 200 reindeer. The poor animals had starved to death!

Svalbard is said to be warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. Higher temperatures near the Arctic mean that more rain has been falling on the archipelago than normal. In fact, the region experienced unusually heavy rainfalls in December, 2018 which froze as soon as it hit the tundra. Svalbard reindeer are used to grazing in winter, digging through the snow with their hooves and noses to reach lichens and vegetation below. But the thick layers of ice covering the tundra prevented them from feeding, as the animals couldn’t break through the ice that covered their food source.

The reindeer that survived the winter displayed extremely low body weights with an absence of fat on their backs, and very few females were pregnant. They survived only thanks to risky adaptive behaviours, like grazing on seaweed and kelp which cause digestive distress or climbing up steep mountains where they risked falling.

Svalbard reindeer. Photo by: Silje-Kristin Jensen / Norwegian Polar Institute

Reindeer: Another of the Animals Affected by Climate Change in the Arctic

NOAA revealed that the overall abundance of reindeer and caribou around the world has declined an astonishing 56%, thanks in large part to climate change. From a total estimated population of 4.7 million individuals, the global caribou population has fallen to about 2.1 million individuals over the past two decades. Such a drastic decline is almost impossible to recover from.

Of the arctic animals affected by climate change, reindeer are another species that are integral to the ecosystem. Reindeer and caribou are the arctic’s primary foragers and help cycle nutrients from plants back into the soil. While climate change has been decimating the reindeer population, the fact is that an abundant reindeer population can actually help stem the tide of climate change, too.

The Norwegian Polar Institute has found that reindeer could actually help slow climate change. As the animals graze, they thin out shrubs and other thick vegetation, revealing shinier reflective surfaces. This allows more sunlight to be reflected back into the atmosphere, instead of being absorbed by the ground. Sunlight that is absorbed by the ground increases surface temperatures significantly, promoting the melting of Arctic ice. What we’re seeing, then, is a vicious cycle: as the arctic heats up, reindeer populations decline, which in turn contributes to more arctic warming, further stressing the populations.

Why Is Climate Change in the Arctic Important?

It is amazing how every single being has an impact on its ecosystem. Climate change in the arctic is unveiling just how important every species is to its ecosystem, and how scary it would be to lose them.

About the Author

Kimberley has a M.Sc in International Studies (Cooperation, Development, Economics) from the University of Montreal. She is passionate about the environment and Indigenous peoples' land rights.


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