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The Unsettling Reason Why We're Seeing More Snowy Owls

Animals
Snowy owls are native to Arctic regions. Maxpixel

For birders and fans of Hedwig from the Harry Potter series, spotting a snowy owl in the wild is a special treat as these great white raptors spend most of their lives in the Arctic.

But sightings further south have become more common in North America in recent winters. As the Ottawa Citizen reported this week, sightings of the charismatic owl have soared in Eastern Ontario for the last six years.


This "irruption"—an influx of a species to areas they aren't usually found—could be a sign that there's not enough food for the snowies around their usual home.

Because of climate change, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, causing dramatic shifts to ecosystems. This warmth has caused the region to become more green.

As a result, rodents have more vegetation to graze on, thus increasing the prey base for snowy owls. This abundance in prey, a bird expert suggested to Ottawa Citizen, has resulted in successful breeding seasons for the snowy owls. But with more owls hunting in the same area, the less successful hunters end up traveling south in search of food.

"It could be climate change: The Arctic warming up, more vegetation available, so it's producing more rodents," birder Bruce Di Labio told the Ottawa Citizen. "In turn, the snowy owls are being successful (in breeding) every year."

The Audobon Society explains that "it's all about food availability: when the birds' rodent prey base either crashes or is in super-abundance, snowy owls push south in winter."

Over time, however, these southern sightings could be a much rarer occurrence:

"Audubon's climate model suggests that in the future such southward excursions may become less extensive. By century's end, climatically suitable areas for wintering Snowy Owls may have pushed north from southern Canada well into the Arctic. The big question for these owls isn't climate per se—these big predators can withstand harsh weather—but, rather, the indirect effect of climate on the owls' prey base."

Although snowy owl populations are linked to booms and busts of Arctic rodents, the bird's numbers are in steep decline overall, Smithsonian magazine reported. In the December 2017 Red List of Threatened Species, the bird's status was listed as "vulnerable" for the first time. Its population is currently around 28,000 birds, down from 200,000 in 2013.

Andy Symes, global species officer of BirdLife International, warns that the worsening effects of climate change could put the species at a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.

"The dramatically revised population estimates are a further source for concern, and the species must now be a high priority for further research and conservation action," Symes said.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.