• Kimberley Megis

New Victims of Climate Change in the North

Climate change has been talked about for years and we have all heard about the devastating effects that it could have on the world we know and live in today. But for most of us it remains something that is quite difficult to grasp and fully understand. We associate climate change with what will happen in the future, but the truth is, some of us are already experiencing the damages today. In fact, when you take a look at what is happening close to the Artic circle, you will realize that climate change doesn’t rime with “future” anymore, but instead is very much a current issue.

(c) Kimberley Megis

Alaskan salmon and the heat wave

As I was hiking and camping along rivers in Alaska in July, I came across hundreds of salmon carcasses. Of course, this sight is something we can witness every year: at the end of their life cycle, salmon go back upstream to the exact place where they were born in order to spawn. Salmon are amazing animals. Their life cycle begins in freshwater where the eggs remain during winter until they hatch in the spring. Depending on the species, fry can spend up to a year or more in their natal stream. Both pink and chum then head directly to sea, whereas sockeye fry tend to migrate to a lake, spending 1-2 years before migrating to sea. Chinook fry usually spend less than 5 months in freshwater, while coho fry may spend over a year. When they finally reach the ocean, some species remain in coastal water and others migrate northward to feedings grounds. Salmon may spend one to eight years in the ocean before journeying back to their natal streams to spawn. Once the salmon reach freshwater, 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 birth, the more different their appearance is. It always surprises me how they can jump up waterfalls is such mutilated bodies. This is what piqued my interest. The 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.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed that something abnormal was going on with the perseverant fish. 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 group of 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 total was likely four to ten times larger. The scientists looked for signs of lesions, parasites and infections on the fish, but nearly all the salmon had "beautiful eggs still inside them," said Mrs. Quinn-Davidson.

Interestingly enough, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared July 2019 the hottest month on record for the planet and noted Alaska specifically had its warmest July since statewide records began back in 1925. The temperatures rose up to 30 degrees Celsius from July 7 to 11 in the Last Frontier, well above the seasonal average highs of less than 20! 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 lower than average, died because of heat stress.

What happened to the fish is not without consequences; ecosystems depend on these salmon that play a key role in bringing nutrients from the ocean back into rivers and feed the trees and predators such as bears, wolves and eagles. The food chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and if the salmon disappear, the beings that depend on them are bound to the same fate.

200 reindeer died of starvation in Norway

You would be wrong if you thought that reindeer and salmon don’t have anything in common, they do! Reindeer were also victims of climate change this year, and 200 of them died on the small archipelago of Norway, Svalbard. The 10,000 wild Svalbard reindeer have been monitored by scientists of the Norwegian Polar Institute since 1978, so when the group of scientists arrived in March 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. In fact, the region experienced unusually heavy rainfalls this past December, that 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. These animals were even forced to change their behavior, grazing on seaweed and kelp that cause digestive distress or even climbing up steep mountains where they would risk falling.

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

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed that the overall abundance of reindeer and caribou around the world declined 56 percent from a total estimated population of 4.7 million individuals to about 2.1 million individuals over the past two decades, such drastic declines that recovery isn’t in sight.

Reindeer and caribou are the region’s primary foragers and are helping cycle nutrients from plants back into the soil. The Norwegian Polar Institute even discovered that reindeer could actually help slow climate change down! The grazing animals thin out shrubs and other thick vegetation, which reveals shinier and reflective surfaces upon which more sunlight reflect back into space instead of being absorbed by the ground. If the sunlight was to be absorbed by the ground, surface temperatures would increase significantly and therefore promote the melting of Arctic ice.

It is amazing how every single being has an impact on its ecosystem. Climate change is unveiling just how important they are, 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. Instragram - @kimberleymgs