From the Bering to Maine, Hot Oceans Are Killing the Puffin

“The Bering Sea has been off-the-charts warm. We’ve never seen anything like this. We’re in uncharted territory. We’re in the midst of an extraordinary time.” Nate Mantua, an ecologist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz, California in this National Geographic article.

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Some have claimed that the effects of global warming are only gradual and mild. That the impacts to the Earth’s weather systems, its oceans, its lands, its web of life do not now represent a crisis that risks global catastrophe and mass human tragedy. That, somehow, the growing die-offs now inflicted on key species amounts to some kind of pleasantly quiet background noise that we should rationally, coldly, consider, but that should not increase our level of concern or, perish the thought, alarm. And when the very real harms that are now escalating as a result of climate change are realized more fully by human civilization, the fact that these voices did not warn us more strongly, that some of these voices attacked those of us who were rationally concerned, will stand in history as stark evidence to the harms of pandering to the false comfort of an unwarranted reticence.

image

(Today, sea surfaces in regions surrounding the Arctic are between 2 and 10.5 degrees Celsius above average. These waters are so warm now that they are less able to support a vital food chain. And the impact to Puffins has been considerable. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

If they could speak, a lovable breed of northern bird would tell us their own tale of tragedy and loss at the hand of global heat. And if we could hear the sad tale of their own great plight, our hearts and minds might not be so hard or so cold. For in and near the Arctic there is every indication that winter is dying and along with it, the Puffins.

Mass Puffin Die-Off Underway

Northern waters are rich with life. Or they were, at least, until recently. High oxygen content, cold water, high nutrient content all help to form a basis for the teeming life of this region. However, as atmospheric carbon levels increase and as oceans warm, these waters become less able to support life. They hold less oxygen. They become more acidic. And they tend to become more stratified. The food chain is disrupted and winnowed down. And such a winnowing can have a terrible impact on all kinds of life forms.

For the Puffin, such ocean warming related food losses have become a subject of growing alarm among researchers. In the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, both National Geographic and Digital Journal have compiled reports of severe loss of life to both adult birds and young. In parts of the Bering sea, adult Puffins are dying at 200 times the normal mortality rate. Nesting rates, normally at 60 percent, have plummeted to 12 percent. And the few chicks that do manage to hatch from eggs are emaciated.

Tufted Puffin

(Charismatic Puffins imperiled by climate change are now subject to an increasing extinction pressure due to this man-made crisis. Image source: NRDC.)

Over on the Atlantic side, a similar mass die off of Puffins has occurred in the Gulf of Maine even while stresses to the birds have been increasing into Scotland, the Barents Sea and Iceland. Die offs further south in Maine began to become widespread during 2014 as the waters off the US East Coast hit extreme levels of warmth. By 2016, the mass mortality had extended to Iceland where more than 80 percent of Puffin chicks were reported dead.

To researchers, there’s no mystery as to what’s killing the birds. They’re starving. But the root cause of the great loss among Puffins is even more disturbing. Julia Parrish, a University of Washington professor who coordinates a West Coast volunteer bird-monitoring network noted to National Geographic:

“Clearly something very weird is going on. It’s basically every year now we’re getting some huge mass-mortality event. It seems that the bottom-up changes provoked by the atmosphere are creating massive, massive changes in marine ecosystems. And the forage fish that everything depends on are taking it in the shorts.” (Emphasis added)

In other words, the fish that Puffins feed on are dying due to global climate change and so the Puffins are dying too.

Conditions in Context — We All Rely on Bountiful Oceans

If we are unable to escape the stresses of our own lives, or step back from our own individual difficulties to take account of the larger trajectory of our race, the plight of Puffins starving in the North Atlantic or Bering Sea may seem a remote or minor concern. However, when one realizes that, like the Puffins, human beings also rely on the bounty of the oceans as a primary food source, the matter strikes much closer to home. And in this case, Puffins join a long list of ocean-dependent wildlife — corals, seals, fish, polar bears, walruses, lobsters and so many more — who are sending us an increasingly loud warning as they perish.

Life in the world’s waters is in peril due to the warming we are causing. And because life on land is ultimately connected to what happens in the waters, not paying attention, not responding to what’s happening by halting the fossil fuel emissions that have created this terrible extinction pressure, is a wretched road to follow.

Links:

Puffins are Starving to Death Because of Climate Change

Puffins Starve to Death in High Numbers off the Gulf of Maine

Something is Seriously Wrong on the East Coast and it’s Killing all the Baby Puffins

Huge Puffing Die-Off May Be Linked to Hotter Seas

Global and Regional Food Consumption

NRDC

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to marcyincny

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