Let’s Talk About Climate Change

climate change

Many questions surround climate change and its effects. One question that has a clear answer: climate change is real. (Photo credit: ALAN DAWSON PHOTOGRAPHY/Alamy Images)

What is climate change? What evidence supports climate change? What role do humans play in climate change? Read on to find the answers to these questions and a few other frequently-asked questions about this topic. [Read more…]

Kauai’s Hawaiian Honeycreepers On the Brink of Extinction

honeycreeper

Kauai’s native honeycreeper population is facing extinction. (Photo credit: Sami Sarkis/Photographer’s Choice RF/Getty Images)

New research indicates that six of seven native forest birds found on the island of Kauai in Hawaii are quickly disappearing from the landscape and their range is rapidly contracting. All six of these species are honeycreepers, and four are only found in small, remote locations. The reason for this collapse, as reported in an article in the journal Science Advances, is the spread of avian malaria by mosquitoes. The mosquitoes have been able to expand their territory upward due to climate change and global warming. [Read more…]

Greenland’s Melting Ice Sheet

Greenland ice sheet

Greenland is home to the world’s second largest ice sheet, and it is melting at an alarming rate – 287 billion metric tons of ice is disappearing every year. (Photo credit: Global Warming Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Greenland is home to the world’s second largest ice sheet, and it is melting at an alarming rate – 287 billion metric tons of ice is disappearing every year. Several factors contribute to ice sheet melting, including changes in air temperature, water temperature, and precipitation. New research indicates that there is a fourth factor to consider: cloud cover. [Read more…]

195 Countries Sign Historic Climate Agreement in Paris

President Obama speaks at the Paris Climate Talks

US President Barack Obama delivers a speech during the plenary session at the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change. (Photo credit: Eric Feferberg/AFP/ Getty Images)

On Saturday, December 12, delegates from 195 countries signed an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit climate warming to 2 degrees Celsius. [Read more…]

The Melting Glaciers of Patagonia

(Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

Glaciers are melting at a quickening rate in Chile. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

Seventy-five percent of the world’s freshwater supply is locked up in glaciers and ice sheets. At 14,000 km2, the Patagonian Ice Fields located in southern Chile are the world’s third largest frozen landmass. According to the Centre for Scientific Studies located in Valdivia, Chile, nearly 90 percent of the country’s glaciers are in retreat.  [Read more…]

Pacific Island Populations Proactive in the Face of Potential Sea-Level Rise

tropical island

What effect will sea level rise have on low-lying islands? (Photo credit: Amornthep/Shutterstock)

Scientists estimate that a warmer climate could lead to a rise in sea level of between 0.5 to 2.3 meters by the end of the century. These values are at the low-end of scientists’ estimates; in a worst-case scenario, scientists estimate that sea levels could potentially rise between 4 to 6 meters.

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Early Birds: Songbird Migration and Climate Change

eastern bluebirds

Research indicates that climate change affects the migration behavior of songbirds. (Photo credit: iStockphoto.com)

The first green seedlings erupt from the cold, brown earth; pink blossoms unfold on tree branches; and insect populations burgeon. As our globe warms, those who live in the northern parts of North America and Europe do not generally complain about the earlier and earlier arrival of spring. But what does an early spring mean to the migratory birds that inhabit those ecosystems? It appears to be changing their rhythms. Over the past half century, abundant data has revealed a picture of changes in bird behavior that corresponds to changes in climate. One thing is clear: migratory birds of North America and Europe are arriving earlier at their northern nesting grounds each year. Some species seem to be adapting to the climate change, while others may be at risk.

Allen Hurlbert and a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina conducted a recent study of bird migration and climate change. Although covering only the past ten years, the dataset used in the study was robust—it consisted of more than 48 million bird observations taken of 18 different species. The data was gathered by about 35,000 citizens as part of a citizen science project called eBird. The website, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in 2002, allows amateur birdwatchers to log into the site and submit their sightings. Experts review any unusual observations. Hurlbert and his team then correlated recorded temperatures with first sightings of bird species at their nesting grounds. They found that birds have shifted their migration on average nearly a day for every degree Celsius the climate has warmed. Some species arrived as many as three to six days early for each rise in degree. Other species adhere to their historic schedules.

According to Hurlbert, the change in birds’ migration patterns could affect the health of bird populations, as the timing of their arrival is critical. Species that arrive early as well as those that maintain their historic migration patterns are both at risk. Birds that arrive at their northern breeding grounds too early may suffer if the threat of severe winter weather has not yet completely passed. Birds that arrive too late may miss the peak in the spring insect populations and be outcompeted by earlier arriving birds.

These and other researchers have found that birds with the longest migration routes may not adapt as quickly to climate change. Those, like the great crested flycatcher, which winters in South America, are the slowest to change. The triggers for migration come from environmental conditions, and the birds in South America have no way of knowing when spring is arriving in the northern United States. On the other hand, birds with shorter migration routes may have an advantage. For example, an early spring in Massachusetts usually coincides with an early spring in North Carolina, so birds wintering there may be receiving early cues that it is time to pack up and head north.

In another study, researchers found that a different flycatcher species, the pied flycatcher, has started migrating earlier in the spring due to climate change, but still reaches its destination on time. The study found that the earlier departure date appears to be related to birth time—that birds born earlier also migrate earlier. However, bad weather in North Africa, which is along the pied flycatcher’s route from West Africa to Europe, slows the birds’ advance and they end up reaching Sweden and The Netherlands at their usual times. This ability to adjust its schedule en-route may turn out to be an advantage for slower migrating species such as the pied flycatcher.

In addition to adjusting departure and arrival dates, several migratory bird species are changing their winter destinations. More than half of over 300 bird species monitored by the Audubon Society have shifted their winter ranges roughly 35 miles farther north from where they were 40 years ago. Again, the researchers point to climate change. The average temperature in January has climbed by nearly 3 °C in the U.S. during that time. The birds are most likely following shifting ranges in available food and nesting sites.

All these studies seem to confirm the same thing: that global climate change is affecting bird migration. The next step that scientists are working toward is understanding the mechanisms behind the changes. More research is needed to determine whether there is flexibility in birds’ inherited migration instincts or if the instincts themselves are changing. In other words, it is not clear whether the changes in migration behaviors are evolutionary responses to the changes in temperature. It is also not known what role a host of other factors play in modulating bird migration, such as wind direction, wind speed, and the condition of the birds themselves.

Finally, researchers would like to have enough information to make predictions about the future of specific bird populations. If temperatures continue to increase, how will migratory birds and other animals adapt or fail to adapt? This information may not only prevent extinctions, but help us understand the bigger picture of how our planet is changing. As indicator species, birds are affected by subtle tweaks in temperature. But ultimately, we all may need to adapt as the climate, and thus the ecosystems around us, change.

More to Explore
Birds and Climate Change: On the Move
Atlas of Climate Change Effects in 150 Bird Species
Climate Change: In Graphics

Glacial Retreat and Biodiversity

Alaskan glacier

Glacial retreat, a consequence of climate change, may have a large impact on biodiversity. (Photo credit: Digital Vision/Getty Images)

As a result of climate change, glaciers around the world are melting. What impact might this have on biodiversity? [Read more…]

Making a Difference: Climate Scientist

Dr. Susan Solomon

The ozone hole can be seen in this satellite image. The hole is the pale blue and black region immediately above Solomon’s shoulder

Susan Solomon will not soon forget crawling across the roof of an Antarctic field station in windchill temperatures of –62°C (–80°F), moving heavy equipment, and adjusting mirrors while the winds howled and whipped about her. Sounds like an adventure, right? It sure was! But it is just part of what Solomon has done to establish herself as one of the world’s leading authorities on ozone destruction.

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