North

Starvation after weather event killed caribou on remote Arctic island

Dozens of dead caribou found on a remote, uninhabited Arctic island last summer died from starvation, likely because of a storm, says Nunavut's Department of Environment.

Icy crust on snow may have prevented caribou from digging for lichen

Paul Smith, a biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Adamie Samayualie, a guide from Cape Dorset, with one of the dozens of dead caribou they found on Prince Charles Island last summer. (submitted by Eric Davies)

Dozens of dead caribou found on a remote, uninhabited Arctic island died from starvation, likely because of a storm, says Nunavut's Department of Environment.

Last summer, 47 carcasses were found on Prince Charles Island by a group of researchers from Environment and Climate Change Canada who were flying over the island, looking for a place to set up a research station to study migratory birds.

Samples of the caribou were taken and results arrived in January providing some answers on how they died.

"The results confirm extremely low fat reserves, indicating starvation as the cause of death," reads a statement from Nunavut's Environment Department.

"A spring storm preventing access to forage is the most likely cause of the die-off. Weather-related die-offs such as this are a natural and not uncommon occurrence."

Peter Awa, an elder from Igloolik, one of the closest communities to the island, has hunted caribou for decades and says he's heard of mass die-offs before. He said, with climate change, he expects more.

"Every species is going to be affected by it, not only caribou," he said in Inuktitut.

The cause of death does not come as surprise to Paul Smith, a biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada who found the carcasses last summer.

"A large number of caribou tucked in against the side of a ridge curled implies there was some combination of weather and starvation," he said.

Layer of ice

Smith, who specializes in coastal Arctic ecosystems, says he has been working with the Government of Nunavut to try and piece together when the animals died and is trying to identify the specific weather event that may have led to their eventual starvation.

One of 47 carcasses found on Prince Charles Island. (Paul Smith)

What he's looking for is what he calls a "rain on snow event" that may have created a layer of ice preventing the caribou from getting at their food.

"We know when there's wet snow that can form a crust it can be really hard for caribou to dig through this icy crust and get to the lichens that they like to eat," he said.

"They're Arctic animals. They're used to winter storms. Die offs aren't uncommon. But the question a lot of caribou biologists ... are interested in is whether or not climate change is leading to an increased frequency of these storms that are harmful to caribou."

now