By Ed Struzik
On Coats Island, in northern Hudson Bay, thick-billed murres—members of the auk family—have been under assault on several fronts in recent years. Polar bears, faced with a sharp decline in the sea ice from which they hunt ringed seals, have retreated to the island and are eating the murres’ eggs. As the sea ice disappears, the murres now have to fly farther and work harder to get food that they normally find along the ice edges. And as temperatures around Hudson Bay rise, mosquitoes are hatching earlier in the season. So many mosquitoes have swarmed on Coats Island in recent years that some of the nesting murres have perished from blood loss, according to biologist Anthony Gaston of Environment Canada, who has been studying the murre colonies on the island since 1984.
Gaston believes that the toll these changes are taking on long-lived murres and their chicks will inevitably lead to a sharp decline and ultimate collapse of the island’s 30,000 breeding pairs. "Maybe not in my lifetime, but it will happen," says Gaston, who will retire in March. "These and other seabirds are superbly adapted to the sea ice environment. Without that ice, and with polar bears and mosquitoes hitting them hard, the only future in the Arctic for them is to move north."
Across the Arctic, resident birds such as the murres are experiencing increasing stresses that affect their foraging patterns and reproductive success. Researchers say that the gyrfalcon, the peregrine falcon, the willow and rock ptarmigan, the long-tailed jaeger or skua, and Ross’s and ivory gulls are in decline, as are some other birds that fly north to nest in the Arctic. In many cases, the birds’ prey—from lemmings, to snowshoe hare, to cod in the southern reaches of the Arctic Ocean—are experiencing population declines and shifts in their reproductive cycles.
"There’s no doubt that something is happening," says Dave Mossop, a biologist at Yukon College who has been studying birds in the Yukon for more than 40 years. "Kestrels here are declining so fast, it’s scary. As many as 60 percent of the adult peregrines we have in the Yukon haven’t even bothered nesting in recent years. Our gyrfalcons are breeding much later, seem to be producing fewer young, and are declining in abundance."
Scientists are working hard to understand why these cycles are changing, but many suspect that climate change is at least partially responsible. With springtime in the Arctic advancing by two or three weeks, snowshoe hares may not be losing their white coats fast enough to make them less vulnerable to predation in spring. Higher temperatures may be having an impact on vegetation that is critical for some birds, and warmer and shorter winters are resulting in snowfall and icing events that may not be conducive to lemming, vole and other rodent reproduction.
Predators such as the peregrine, the gyrfalcon, the snowy owl and the Greenland long-tailed skua depend on peaks in these prey species to reproduce in numbers that will sustain their populations. For these birds, collapsing prey cycles are bad news. A team of Danish scientists, for example, recently documented how a collapse in collared lemming cycles at two sites in Greenland between 1998 and 2010 resulted in a 98 percent decline in the snowy owl population. They also documented a similar, albeit less drastic, decline in the population of long-tailed jaegers, part of the skua family.
Mossop and others are convinced that this rush of protein that periodically flushes through the system during predator peaks is what drives these resident populations in the Arctic. "All Arctic creatures have to have sophisticated strategies in order to survive in this part of the world." he says. "Exploiting those peaks, I think, is part of the strategy."
According to Don Reid, a scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Yukon, early and deep snow provides the insulation that is necessary for lemmings to breed and produce enough young to account for the population peaks. Because snow conditions are declining or changing in some places in the Arctic, that insulation is being compromised, Reid says. Lemmings, as a result, cannot produce enough offspring to bounce back from the lows that follow heavy predation.
University of Alberta biologist Alastair Franke has unequivocal evidence of peregrine falcon nestlings starving to death on the west coast of Hudson Bay. But lack of food, he says, is not the main thing killing these birds. According to a recent study led by graduate student Alexandre Anctil of the University of Quebec, some regions of the Arctic are now experiencing more periods of heavy rain each summer when compared to the early 1980s. With their downy white coats insulating them against the snow and the cold, these chicks do just fine. When it rains heavily, however—as it has increasingly been doing along the west coast of Hudson Bay since 1980—up to a third of the peregrine chicks in the study area die of hypothermia as their wet feathers rapidly draw heat from their bodies. Some even drowned in their nests.
Anctil and Franke came to this conclusion by analyzing meteorological records dating back to 1980 and by placing nest boxes on cliffsides to provide shelter for some of the chicks. With the help of remote cameras, they discovered that sheltered chicks fared better than birds that were exposed to heavy rain events. All of this counters the good news for a species that has undergone a strong recovery after nearly being driven to extinction in the 1970s.
Acadia University biologist Mark Mallory has been watching this and other similar events unfold with concern for the fulmars, murres, black guillemots, and other year-round Arctic residents that he studies in the High Arctic. This past summer was an especially bad one for the birds Mallory studies. As happened with some regularity in the past, snow, ice, and cold conditions lingered for so long that the terns, gulls and jaegers at Nasaruvaalik Island didn’t even lay eggs. Mallory says that while the birds are adapted to deal with these occasional seasonal extremes, the overall warming trend is a real cause for concern. "What worries me is what’s happening in the southern parts of the Arctic," says Mallory. "If we see these ecosystem changes and rain events migrating north into the High Arctic, I don’t know how these birds are going to adapt."
For researchers, the problem in almost all cases is that there is a dearth of information about how Arctic birds and their prey are faring throughout the circumpolar world. The impact of climate change is often an indirect one, creating subtle mismatches between predator and prey that may be caused by changes in snow and vegetation, icing events, the arrival of an invasive species or the early melting of sea ice.
What’s more, climate change is not be the only reason some birds like the ivory gull are in trouble. For example, Mallory and colleague Grant Gilchrist of Environment Canada once thought that receding sea ice—which makes it increasingly difficult for these birds to forage for fish and marine invertebrates—was the main reason for the 80 percent decline that they documented in Canada’s ivory gull population since the 1980s. "Receding sea ice means that, just like bears having less time to hunt seals, there's less time for the gulls to follow bears and scavenge kills," says Mallory.
But now he and other scientists have evidence to suggest that high levels of mercury, which the gulls may be ingesting from foraging on seal carcasses left behind by polar bears, may also be a factor. "Mercury is something we think is a smoking gun," he says. "But because there are so few of the birds in Canada, it's tough to justify sampling to run experiments."
To get a clearer picture of what is happening in the Arctic, Mossop, Mallory and other scientists are attempting to set up international networks that can better track changes. Even with that, says Mallory, figuring out what is going on is still daunting.
"We have a very small population and few, widely distributed sampling sites (e.g. weather stations), so our baseline data is not too great," says Mallory. "Add to that the complex suite of threats that some of these species are facing simultaneously—climate change, contamination of food webs, alteration to migratory stopover sites and wintering habitats, competition with human fisheries for prey, industrial development in the Arctic, invasion of the Arctic by new parasites, diseases — and you can appreciate that trying to nail down a cause-and-effect explanation for what we are seeing is very tough."
Mallory says three things are needed to better understand these significant shifts in Arctic bird populations: interdisciplinary and international collaboration, a commitment to long-term studies, and the financial resources to do the work properly. "The commitment to long-term studies and the funding to do them properly is floundering," he says.
Laval University scientist Gilles Gauthier—who has spent the last quarter century leading a team of scientists studying the fauna and flora on Bylot Island in the eastern Arctic—cautions his colleagues not to read too much into short-term trends in animal cycles. But Gauthier says that when change happens in a simple food web such as the Arctic, it can occur abruptly, whether from declines in prey abundance, the appearance of new competitors or diseases, or changes in vegetation.
"The eastern Arctic where I work is still relatively cold compared to what is happening in Fenno-Scandinavia and Alaska and the western Arctic of Canada," says Gauthier. "That may account for the fact that on Bylot Island we are not seeing the big changes that are occurring elsewhere. What we do know, though, is that the warming that is coming will greatly exceed anything we have seen so far. In order to understand how plants and animals can adapt to constraints brought on by rapid change, we need to better understand these linkages between different species."
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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