Alarming answer to dead sea birds
- Alarming answer to dead sea birds
By Mark Townsend and Richard Sadler of The Observer
From the June 28 edition of the Otago Daily Times
UNTIL now, their deaths have defied explanation. What caused
hundreds of seemingly healthy sea birds to perish on the North Sea
has baffled scientists since the discovery of their corpses on the
east coast of England this spring. Fears of a major pollution
incident such as an oil slick were quickly dispelled.
But the mystery is close to being solved and the answer has stunned
ornithologists: the North Sea is heating up at an alarming rate. The
broody expanse of water, famous for its violent storms and freak
waves, is slowly being transformed.
Using the oldest maritime data in the world, scientists have found
that climate change is ridding the North Sea of its precious stocks
of plankton, the microscopic organisms on which all life in the sea
depends. As the very building blocks of the food chain disappear,
fish and the birds that feed on them, such as the puffin and
guillemot, are starving to death in what has been their natural home
for thousands of years. New research from the Sir Alistair Hardy
Foundation for Ocean Science in Plymouth, southwest England, which
has been monitoring plankton around the British Isles for more than
70 years, reveals that the North Sea is undergoing a major "regime
Foundation director Dr Chris Reid said: "What's happening in the
North Sea is it's becoming more like the east coast of Spain. As
temperatures get warmer, we are starting to see a pattern that is
more typical of what you might see in the Mediterranean." The
foundation's concern is supported by another set of findings
detailing how the sudden change of the North Sea is impacting on
Britain's sea birds, many of whom breed in internationally recognised
Sea-bird colonies on the Yorkshire coast and the Shetland Islands
are headed for their worst breeding season on record. So far, a
number of colonies have failed to produce any young at all. Starving
chicks screeching for food from their cliff nests along the eastern
coast of Britain are an increasingly common sight to alarmed
bird-watchers. In the Shetlands alone, thousands of kittiwakes and
guillemots, regarded as among the hardiest of species, have failed to
return to old nesting sites.
Martin Heubeck, a researcher from Aberdeen University who has
studied sea birds on Shetland for 28 years, said: "There just isn't
enough food. Until now, the North Sea has offered an ideal nesting
place for 21 of the UK's 24 species of sea bird, mainly because of
the abundance of sea food thrown up by the cool tide of the North Sea
mixing with the warmer waters of the Atlantic. The demise of cod
stocks in the North Sea triggered the first concern that the sea's
ecosystem was changing, though the effects of overfishing were blamed.
A BBC television programme, Countryfile , has provided evidence
that sea birds are being wiped out by the effects of climate change
and confirm that a new and far greater threat has emerged. "The whole
food web is being unravelled by climate change and this could
fundamentally be the biggest change in the North Sea since it was
created 10,000 years ago," said Euan Dunn, head of marine policy for
the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
UK government officials, already nervous over the potential impact
of global warming, are similarly worried. Environment Minister Elliot
Morley said government-funded research was coming to the same
"fundamental" conclusion as that of the foundation. "It does appear
that there is a migration of plankton which is moving north into the
colder waters and that the North Sea is progressively warming. This
is very important information," he said.
The rate of cold-water plankton migration though, according to the
Plymouth-based scientists, is astonishing, suggesting that the vital
food supply may have drifted up to 1000km further north already,
almost the entire length of Britain.
Average sea temperatures throughout the North Sea vary from about
4degC up to 8degC. However, an astonishing 4degC increase in winter
sea temperatures has been recorded in recent years, a rise that
experts predict will escalate to Mediterranean-style temperatures
that average above 20degC during summer.
Some have taken comfort in the findings for their role in explaining
why up to 250 guillemots, puffins, razorbills and fulmars were washed
ashore on the English coast in March. Up to 200 dead birds were found
on the beaches off northern France and Belgium around the same time.
It was impossible to gauge how many had sunk to the seabed.
The previous year scores of dead sea birds drifted ashore off
Aberdeen in Scotland, one of the North Sea's principal ports.
Similarly, evidence that the North Sea's food chain is collapsing
might explain the new phenomenon of puffins switching from a fish
diet to smaller birds.
Certainly it provides a reason why warm-water fish like squid,
pilchards and the red mullet are becoming increasingly common in the
North Sea. - Guardian Newspapers
Monday, 28-June 2004
The best thing to hit the Internet in years - Juno SpeedBand!
Surf the Web up to FIVE TIMES FASTER!
Only $14.95/ month - visit www.juno.com to sign up today!