Our Climate Disruptions Are Causing Mass Die-offs In Seabirds

Our Climate Disruptions Are Causing Mass Die-offs In Seabirds tryton2011 / shutterstock

Changes in seabird numbers are probably the best way to monitor the quality of the marine environment. And things are looking bad. In the past 50 years, the world population of marine birds has more than halved. What’s worse is that few people have noticed.

Puffins, guillemots, penguins and albatrosses are all in decline. How do we know this? There are three main ways of checking on numbers. First and best are long-term population studies: counts of individuals or pairs at their breeding colonies made in a systematic, rigorous way each year at established “study plots”. For instance, I have studied the same population of guillemots on Skomer Island in Wales since 1972. Consistent, careful methodology is the key here, but it is labour intensive.

Second, are one-off counts made every ten years or so over larger areas. This has occurred in the UK, starting with the census known as “Operation Seafarer” in 1969-70, and with the most recent survey last year. This method provides estimates of the size of the overall population of different species but is less good at detecting small changes in numbers.

The third way is by counting the bodies of seabirds washed up on the shoreline – usually referred to as beached bird surveys. Regular, systematic counts along set lengths of shoreline provide background levels of mortality. Occasionally, numbers spike in what in seabird parlance is known as a “wreck”, as occurred in 2014 when more than 50,000 seabirds, mainly guillemots and puffins, were washed up on the west coast of Britain and France.

Seabird wrecks have been known about for a long time, but they are becoming more common. Wrecked seabirds are usually emaciated, having usually starved to death, indicating a catastrophic failure in their food supply.

Death in Alaska

This is exactly what happened in late 2016 on the remote island of St Paul, in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. According to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, around 285 tufted puffins were found dead over a three month period – many times more than the usual background level of death. Note, the tufted puffin is a bigger, chunkier, darker bird than its relative the Atlantic Puffin that breeds around Britain’s shores.

Our Climate Disruptions Are Causing Mass Die-offs In Seabirds Tufted puffins found on North Beach, St. Paul, Alaska, October 2016. Aleut Community of St Paul Island Ecosystem Conservation Office, CC BY-SA

A total of 285 doesn’t sound dramatic, but it is well known that only a fraction of the birds that die get washed up and found. The authors of this report use a variety of sophisticated methods to estimate the true mortality and come up with an estimate of between 2,740 and 7,600 – and this from an estimated tufted puffin population on St Paul of 7,000 individuals (suggesting obviously that if the upper estimate is right the event also killed birds from elsewhere).

This was far from being a trivial event. Indeed, it seems to be part of massive shift in the marine environment, a “Pacific marine heat wave”. This is global warming writ large upon the seas, causing changes in the abundance and distribution of plankton, with knock-on effects on the fish and invertebrate species that tufted puffins and other marine birds need to feed on.

Our Climate Disruptions Are Causing Mass Die-offs In Seabirds Climate change is affecting the plankton at the bottom of the food chain. Mark Caunt / shutterstock

Seabird wrecks are often associated with stormy sea conditions (as in the UK in 2014), which themselves are a symptom of climate change. Yes, we’ve always had storms, but storms are occurring more frequently and are more intense than previously. High winds and rough seas are thought to disperse fish shoals and make it hard for seabirds to find enough food.

But the puffin wreck in the Bering Sea was not linked to stormy conditions. Instead, the scientists involved think that warming of the seas by just a couple of degrees was enough to reduce the availability of food. Add to this the fact that puffins were moulting – replacing their feathers – at this time of year, placing extra energetic demands on them, and probably limiting their ability to search for food over a wide area. The result: starvation.

Our Climate Disruptions Are Causing Mass Die-offs In Seabirds Warm temperatures in the Bering Sea (top centre), September 2016. NOAA, CC BY-SA

In terms of the global seabird population, the events around St Paul Island in 2016 and 2017 may seem trivial – a few thousand birds lost. But this seabird wreck is part of a much bigger picture of ongoing decline that is almost certainly caused by ongoing climate change.

We mustn’t get used to such events and we cannot afford to ignore the signs that climate change is not just continuing, but accelerating, and as that happens populations of seabirds (and many other forms of wildlife) will continue to decline. We need to ensure we have robust monitoring systems in place to document these depressing changes in bird numbers, and we need to do everything we can to reduce the root cause: climate change.

About The Author

Tim Birkhead, Emeritus Professor of Zoology, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities

by Peter Plastrik , John Cleveland
1610918495The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future. Available On Amazon

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert
1250062187Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Available On Amazon

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats

by Gwynne Dyer
1851687181Waves of climate refugees. Dozens of failed states. All-out war. From one of the world’s great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world’s powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. Prescient and unflinching, Climate Wars will be one of the most important books of the coming years. Read it and find out what we’re heading for. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWnltlfrdehiiditjakomsfaptruesswsvthtrurvi

LATEST VIDEOS

Mexico Puts US To Shame On Climate Action, But New President's Pledge On Oil Industry Is Worrying
Mexico Puts US To Shame On Climate Action, But New President's Pledge On Oil Industry Is Worrying
by Thomas L Muinzer
As if there was any doubt, the UN’s latest report on climate change makes clear this is one of the most pressing issues…
Deep Sea Carbon Reservoirs Once Superheated The Earth – Could It Happen Again?
Deep Sea Carbon Reservoirs Once Superheated The Earth – Could It Happen Again?
by Lowell D. Stott
As concern grows over human-induced climate change, many scientists are looking back through Earth’s history to events…
Climate Change Alters What's Possible In Restoring Florida's Everglades
Climate Change Alters What's Possible In Restoring Florida's Everglades
by Gardner William Nuttle
The Everglades are a vast network of subtropical freshwater wetland and estuarine ecosystems that once spanned the…
The US Defense Department Is Worried About Climate Change – And Also A Huge Carbon Emitter
The US Defense Department Is Worried About Climate Change – And Also A Huge Carbon Emitter
by Neta C. Crawford
Scientists and security analysts have warned for more than a decade that global warming is a potential national…
Blue Ocean Event : Game Over?
by Just Have a Think
A Blue Ocean Event, or Ice-Free Arctic, is the source of almost fever pitch speculation in the climate science world.…
Climate Change - The Facts by Sir David Attenborough
by David Attenborough, BBC
After one of the hottest years on record, Sir David Attenborough looks at the science of climate change and potential…
Why it’s time to think about human extinction
by Kerwin Rae
After listening to this ep with Dr David Suzuki, you’ll never be the same again. The environmentalist, activist,…
Record Temperatures 20-25C Above Norm in far North
by Paul Beckwith
The Northwest Territories of Canada had March temperatures above 20C for the first time (hit 21.6C or 71F); breaking…

LATEST ARTICLES

Protesting Against Air Pollution Crisis, Extinction Rebellion Stalls Rush-Hour Traffic in London
Protesting Against Air Pollution Crisis, Extinction Rebellion Stalls Rush-Hour Traffic in London
by Jessica Corbett
Campaigners in the city's southeastern borough carried signs that read "This Air Is Killing Us" and "Let Lewisham…
Mexico Puts US To Shame On Climate Action, But New President's Pledge On Oil Industry Is Worrying
Mexico Puts US To Shame On Climate Action, But New President's Pledge On Oil Industry Is Worrying
by Thomas L Muinzer
As if there was any doubt, the UN’s latest report on climate change makes clear this is one of the most pressing issues…
Why Canada Risks Being Left Behind In Low-Carbon Economy
Why Canada Risks Being Left Behind In Low-Carbon Economy
by Sean Cleary and Ryan Riordan
Earlier this spring, the most in-depth analysis to date on Canada’s changing climate provided clear evidence that…
Limiting Warming To 1.5C Could Prevent Thousands Of Heat Deaths In US Cities
Limiting Warming To 1.5C Could Prevent Thousands Of Heat Deaths In US Cities
by Thomas Harrisson
Holding global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, rather than 2C or 3C, could help prevent thousands…
Healthcare In World’s Largest Economies ‘accounts For 4%’ Of Global Emissions
Healthcare In World’s Largest Economies ‘accounts For 4%’ Of Global Emissions
by Josh Gabbatiss
CO2 emissions from healthcare in the world’s largest economies account for about 5% of their national carbon…
File 20180124 72597 1twk9y1.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Biomining The Elements Of The Future
by Marcos Voutsinos, University of Melbourne
Biomining is the kind of technique promised by science fiction: a vast tank filled with microorganisms that leach metal…
What George Bush And The Neocons Can Teach Us About Fighting Climate Change
What George Bush And The Neocons Can Teach Us About Fighting Climate Change
by Ash Murphy
Be under no illusion, the world is losing the fight against climate change. The amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere…
Deep Sea Carbon Reservoirs Once Superheated The Earth – Could It Happen Again?
Deep Sea Carbon Reservoirs Once Superheated The Earth – Could It Happen Again?
by Lowell D. Stott
As concern grows over human-induced climate change, many scientists are looking back through Earth’s history to events…