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Is Santa’s sleigh zero carbon?

In an article originally published for The Conversation, Mike Jeffries, Associate Professor in Geography and Environmental Sciences at Northumbria University, explores whether reindeer are an environmentally friendly form of transport in the lead up to Christmas.

Air travel is a significant contributor to climate change – one ticket on a return flight from London to San Francisco is thought to emit enough carbon to melt five square metres of Arctic Sea ice. For Santa this adds extra stress to Christmas preparations: are reindeer an environmentally friendly form of transport?

A recent study from the Norway-Finland border compared the soil fungi in areas subject to year-round grazing by reindeer with places where reindeer only graze during the winter. Winter-only grazing allowed birch woodland to spread across the tundra. But places with year-round nibbling by reindeer had more heathland vegetation. The fertile soils created by birch, and the species of fungi that live in the soils below the trees, released more carbon. But the more specialist fungi of the heathland soil work more slowly, allowing carbon stocks to build.
The reindeer were credited with holding back birch woodland, whose spread liberates carbon from the soil. Reindeer grazing controls whether the local tundra becomes more forested and loses carbon or remains covered in dwarf shrubs that hold onto carbon in the soil more securely. This would surely more than offset their methane burps, making reindeer carbon negative.