Climate change: Mass disappearance of seabirds in Antarctica
The impact of climate change on Antarctica has become increasingly apparent, particularly during the new year when birds such as the polar skua, Antarctic petrel, and snow petrel usually nest and lay eggs.
However, between December 2021 and January 2022, researchers did not find any skua nests in Svarthamaren, a region where the birds typically raise their chicks. Similarly, the number of nests for Antarctic petrels and snow petrels dropped to almost zero.
According to a study published in the journal ‘Current Biology,’ climate change has caused significantly higher levels of snowfall and accumulation in these regions than in previous years. As a result, unusually strong snowstorms have interfered with the birds’ ability to breed.
Sebastien Descamps, the first author of the study and a researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, explains that stormy weather typically leads to some chick and egg losses in a seabird colony, resulting in lower reproductive success.
However, in this case, not a single bird bred during the storms, which is an unexpected outcome, especially since the number of affected birds is in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
Between 1985 and 2020, Svarthamaren and nearby Jutulsessen were the primary nesting sites for two of the world’s largest colonies of Antarctic petrels, as well as significant breeding grounds for snow petrels and south polar skuas.
During this time, Svarthamaren saw an annual average of 20,000 to 200,000 Antarctic petrel nests, approximately 2,000 snow petrels, and over 100 skuas.
During the 2021-2022 season, the number of breeding Antarctic petrels reduced to only three, with only a few breeding snow petrels, and no skua nests found in Svarthamaren.
Additionally, on Jutulsessen, there were no Antarctic petrel nests found during the summer season of 2021-2022, despite tens of thousands of active nests in previous years.
The extreme weather conditions did not only affect one isolated colony but spread across hundreds of kilometers, impacting a significant part of the Antarctic petrel population’s reproductive success, as stated by Sebastien Descamps, a researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute.
The storms and snow accumulation made the bare ground inaccessible, making it impossible for the birds to raise their chicks.
Moreover, the storms also have a thermoregulatory cost, forcing the birds to use their energy to take shelter, stay warm, and conserve energy.
The problem is accelerating in Antarctica
Descamps recalls that until recently, there were no noticeable indications of climate warming in Antarctica, apart from the peninsula.
However, in recent years, new studies and extreme weather events have started to change the way climate change is perceived in Antarctica.
He hopes that the storm severity prediction model can be further refined to be even more accurate over time.
According to Descamps, the severity of a storm depends on both wind and snowpack, and there are limited locations with adequate snow measurements, which affects the ability to explain the birds’ reproductive success.
Descamps believes that their study strongly demonstrates the substantial impact of these extreme events on seabird populations, and climate models predict that the severity of such events will increase.
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