Seabirds Face Risks from Climate Change: Research in Remote Regions Can Also Be Dangerous

By Madin, Kate | Oceanus, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Seabirds Face Risks from Climate Change: Research in Remote Regions Can Also Be Dangerous


Madin, Kate, Oceanus


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The research expedition ended in near-disaster. Stephanie Jenouvrier, aboard the ship Marion Dufresne II, was heading to the Southern Ocean to study seabirds. On Nov. 14, 2012, while making a stopover at tiny windswept island about 1,800 miles from Cape Town, South Africa, the Dune struck a shoal that opened an 82-foot breach along its hull. The ship's bow thruster was disabled, and damaged watertight compartments filled with icy seawater.

"We felt like the ship was sinking," said Jenouvrier, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). "If the captain had not realized our trajectory was wrong, we would have hit with the front of the ship and sunk right away. We were lucky."

The 110 people aboard the wounded ship were helicoptered to a research station on the island, which already housed 50.

"We left for the trip very confident," Jenouvrier said. But there they were, stranded on Ile de la Possession in the Crozet Islands, waiting for rescue.

Jenouvrier and colleagues had been headed to French-held Kerguelen Island to gather information on black-browed albatross, wandering albatross, macaroni penguin and other seabirds--animals at the top of their Southern Ocean food chain. As such, Jenouvrier said, "seabirds are sentinels of climate change."

Impacts of climate change are already affecting some regions at Earth's poles, as well as the creatures that dwell there. In the Arctic, polar bears that depend on dwindling sea ice are now endangered. In Antarctica, seabirds also depend on ice: Seabirds eat fish, which eat shrimplike crustaceans called krill. The krill eat algae, and the algae grow underneath sea ice.

Jenouvrier is investigating how seabirds will fare in the face of climate change. To do that, she needs data on all the myriad interlocking environmental factors that affect seabirds' lifestyles.

Winners and losers

Seabirds fly very long distances to forage at sea, but they return to nesting sites on land to breed. Many seabirds mate for life and sometimes live and reproduce into their fifth or sixth decades.

Studying climate change requires a long-term perspective, so the researchers make multiple trips to seabird nesting sites, just as the birds do. The French researchers Jenouvrier collaborates with have been gathering information on these species for a half-century in colonies where pairs return year after year. They weigh and count seabirds, count eggs, band chicks, and equip birds with satellite tags to record the ranges and duration of their foraging flights.

"In Antarctica you cannot be alone, so we do this as a team," she said. "And I need the data from other researchers for my own study, because for modeling their responses to climate change, it's very valuable for me to understand what they eat, where they go, how much time they forage."

She integrates the information from fieldwork, data on sea ice and other environmental variables, species' ecology, and climate projections from the International Panel on Climate Change into mathematical models to project seabirds' responses to climate change.

Jenouvrier and WHOI biologist Hal Caswell previously used models to predict the future of emperor penguin populations in one part of Antarctica. Emperors breed annually, and need the presence of sea ice to breed and feed.

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Seabirds Face Risks from Climate Change: Research in Remote Regions Can Also Be Dangerous
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