Arctic summer collapse ‘a problem for birds’

By Becky Lloyd

BBC News

The worst of the Arctic crisis has come and gone, but it appears there’s more to learn from the birds who have suffered most. Scientists made this discovery during research in Longyearbyen, Greenland, where the changed climate has meant birds – their species – are spending a shorter amount of time in Arctic waters. Even during the manmade problems of the 1990s, the sheer impact of climate change on birds in the Arctic was not yet something they had considered. Now in the northern High Arctic, in the fjords, researchers have spent years compiling data of all the Arctic birds that have flocked to those waters, decades ago. Studies of ‘denatured’ birds look at how refuges are affected by climate change For example, over the decades after the 1970s, the groups of Arctic cormorants, who can live 20 years, have multiplied more than tenfold. Their homes – long fjords, very warm climes – have been adapted for them over decades. Then along came the Arctic climate crisis in the 1990s, and the bulk of the cormorants disappeared from the region. A new paper has now been written for the field journal Arctic Research, looking specifically at the impact of climate change on the birds. The researchers found that changes in the seasons and diet have lead to a sharp decline in healthy birds – particularly during the spring and autumn months. Gillian Green, a bird ecologist from the University of Oxford, had been looking at the impact of climate change on the cormorants. She started by looking at data on their size in the 1970s. This could be related to their size in different seasons, or the weather – for example, if there was too much water in the winters, the size would be reduced. She wondered if the shifts in the seasons, too, could affect birds, whose feeding areas are limited by the changing environment in different seasons. The same thing happened to pelicans, who for reasons described in the paper as “random but significant”, have become smaller than in the 1970s. ‘Wasteful’ Long story short, for the most part the birds have fared pretty well, at least from an evolutionary point of view. But those unlucky enough to live in overwintering sites, or those who have been exposed to and have been changed by climate change, have suffered. If you live in an overwintering site, you are probably going to become significantly smaller and smaller. Some even remain underweight. So there’s a reason to think that some of these birds do suffer, with changes in their species forming the basis of the paper. And the risk is of course, if they follow the same path as the large cormorants, they will be wiped out. Becky Lloyd reports from Longyearbyen Greenland

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