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    August 18, 2011 | 1:02 PM

    Why reindeer can't stand the rain

    © 2007 Flickr/tristanf cc by 2.0

    There's no contest. When it comes to iconic victims of climate change, polar bears are it -- and for good reason. But in this blog post, I'd like to turn the spotlight onto another big, Arctic-dwelling animal that is threatened by climate change: reindeer (or caribou, as they're called on the North American continent).

    Out on the Arctic tundra reindeer feed on low-lying plants like mosses and lichens. Watch how reindeer normally nibble their way through snowpack to feed on the plants that grow below.

    Unfortunately, meals like these might not be as easy to come by in the future. As the Arctic continues to warm due to climate change, more precipitation is expected to fall as rain rather than snow. When rain falls on snowpack, it trickles through to the ground. (Kind of like the way flavored syrup finds its way to the bottom of a snow cone.) Once there, the rainwater freezes over plants and forms "ground-icing," which is difficult for reindeer to break through. So difficult, in fact, that some reindeer herders are taking drastic measures to make their animals more effective foragers.

    Results from a recent study back up this relationship between climate, ground-ice levels, and the well-being of reindeer populations. The study authors compared 10 years of reindeer census data (periodic counts of reindeer in a part of Norway) against historical weather records. Sure enough, they found that as temperatures increased, rain and ground ice increased, and reindeer population growth rates declined.

    Like many people, I would guess, I grew up associating reindeer with Santa and experiencing them only through National Geographic magazines. But up North, reindeer are an important part of Nordic cuisine -- for celebrity chefs and indigenous peoples alike. The reality is that as we pump carbon pollution into the atmosphere and alter our climate system, we're gambling with not only the weather, but also what's for dinner -- for reindeer and us.

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