Rudolph the Red Hot Reindeer? Arctic Animals Are Becoming More Radioactive

While none of their noses are glowing bright red, herds of radioactive reindeer continue to roam Norway’s tundra, and it looks like their diet of mushrooms might be making them much more irradiated than in recent years.

Scientists believe that radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster 28 years ago is much to blame for the contaminated Mountain Reindeer subspecies, but they’re not sure why the reindeer are becoming more radioactive over time.

Lavrans Skuterud, a scientist with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, says that reindeer in a mountainous region have almost eight times that amount of Cesium-137 in their systems than they did just two years ago, and he’s pointing to a favorite snack, gypsy mushrooms, as the source.

Skuterud says that the mushrooms, a popular snack for reindeer, are known to accumulate considerable quantities of radioactive matter. And unseasonably warm temperatures in this Arctic region may be making the mushroom, and other vegetation reindeer like, more ubiquitous. 

“This year, there has been extreme amounts of mushroom,” Skuterud told the Norway’s English-language newspaper, The Local. “In addition, the mushroom season has lasted for a long time. And the mushroom has grown very high up on the mountains.”

The half life of Cesium-137 is 30 years, so the amounts of that radiation in the dust that blew over Norway after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 should be nearly 50% of what it was back then. But Skuterud says that the level of Cesium-137 in the Norwegian environment should be even less, as some of it has been washed away and some becomes bound to the soil.

“Only a small part of it is in circulation throughout the food chain,” says Skuterud. “When we watch the values in the grazing animals in autumn, it bounces up and down, and it seems to be everlasting. But the winter values in reindeer luckily show a stable decrease," he said.

The radiation may also come from the hundreds of atomic bomb tests carried in the 1950s and 1960s and have built up over time in lichens, fungi, and mushrooms, which are notably suited at amassing them. Radiation has also been found in reindeer in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.

Reindeer meat is a staple among Arctic populations, with about 14,000 tons of it consumed each year. Danish researchers have found that reindeer herders, who eat a lot of reindeer meat, take in a significant amount of radiation through their diet.  The Norwegian government believes that hundreds of herders die of cancer each year as a result.

Environmental scientists studying the European Arctic ecology are also worried about overpopulation and overgrazing of reindeer, calling it one of the greatest environmental threats to the frozen tundra.  The amount of reindeer in the region has more than doubled in the past four decades.

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