Starvation deaths loom for reindeer as huge amount of snow piles up over icy crust

Unusually heavy snow, coupled with ice from unseasonal rains, mean it's harder for reindeer to reach the food they need to survive the winter.

By Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer - March 23, 2020
Unusual winter conditions in Northern Norway mean reindeer are at risk of starvation. (Atle Staalesen
/ The Independent Barents Observer)

Grazing conditions for reindeer in Northern Norway are very poor this winter as an unusual amount of snow forces the reindeer to dig especially deep to find food.

On top of that, mild weather has created layers with ice both in the snow and below, locking lichen into the ground and leaving reindeer to starve.

“It’s a serious crisis,” says Elisabeth Aspaker, County Governor of Norway’s northernmost region, Troms and Finnmark. She calls on everyone not to disturb the reindeer as “they need all their energy to find food.”

There are about 250,000 reindeer herded by the indigenous Sami community in Norway, of which 180,000 are in Troms and Finnmark county.

Herders have for years warned that climate changes are troubling the animals. Finding food in winter becomes harder, but also migrating from inland to the coast is more challenging since the snow melts earlier in spring, and lakes and rivers freeze later in autumn.

Aspaker’s office this weekend issued an urgent request to the population, asking for special awareness.

“Everyone has to turn around if they see reindeer, keep dogs in leash and show consideration,” she says.

“If there are reindeer in the area you are about to enter, either on foot or by snowmobile, turn around at once.”

Many snowmobile routes are closed, and the County Governor urges municipalities not to issue any exemptions from the rules.

Coastal climate goes inland

The food is there, but the reindeer can’t reach it under the snow and ice.

With climate change, the continental inland climate characterized by cold and dry winters is shifting to become more like that of coastal Norway, with milder temperatures and rain even in mid-winter, which then refreezes forming the layers of ice.

Reindeer have reserves of fat it gets energy from during winter. If disturbed, the animal will use that energy which makes it more vulnerable.

Extreme winters are now the “new normal” in northernmost Scandinavia.

Meanwhile, the Sami herders have to scatter food pellets and haylage to avoid starvation deaths among the reindeer.