Flying in on whirring wings from a fishing trip or resting beside their nesting burrows near the southern tip of Iceland, these beautiful puffins look to be at one with the environment. At Dyrholaey in southern Iceland, we watched them skilfully dodge attacks by the pirates of the sea, Arctic and great skuas as they have done for millennia.
When chased by them and hungry seagulls trying to mug them for the sandeels meant for their chicks, the puffins adopted their preferred safety strategy – diving into the sea.
But these “clowns of the sea” — and the fish they eat — are among a range of Icelandic wildlife facing a new threat: climate change.
Put simply: They don’t like it hot.
And today the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected to warn that the world could pass the threshold for more extreme climate change within 20 years without radical action.
Ahead of November’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the IPCC is expected to say a 1.5C global increase in temperatures since the Industrial Revolution is likely to be passed between now and 2040.
The report is also likely to point to a stronger link between climate change and the extreme weather around the world, such as killer floods in Europe and China and wildfires in Australia and America.
And yesterday COP26 President Alok Sharma said the world is getting “dangerously close” to running out of time to avert catastrophic climate change.
Mr Sharma said failing to limit warming to 1.5C would be “catastrophic”.
In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Sharma said a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, due to be published on Monday, would be the “starkest warning yet” about what the future could hold.
“You’re seeing on a daily basis what is happening across the world. Last year was the hottest on record, the last decade the hottest decade on record,” he said.
He warned that COP26 “has to be the moment we get this right”, adding: “We can’t afford to wait two years, five years, 10 years – this is the moment.”
He added: “I don’t think we’re out of time but I think we’re getting dangerously close to when we might be out of time.
“We will see (from the IPCC report) a very, very clear warning that unless we act now, we will unfortunately be out of time.”
Puffins are a fragile symbol of the impacts of climate change.
Their numbers across Europe have been crashing for decades, say conservationists WWF.
Since 2015, puffins have been red-listed as vulnerable to global extinction.
They have long suffered from man’s overfishing and getting caught in discarded trawler gear.
Ocean plastic is also becoming a major part of their lives.
A study last week by Scotland’s University of the Highland and Islands found that 67 percent of puffins from the UK, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and the Faroe Islands had plastic debris in their nests – more than six times the average for other seabirds.
But BirdLife International (BLI) warns that climate change is piling on extra pressure.
Many of the puffin’s strongholds are within the Arctic, which is warming nearly three times faster than the global average.
BLI said: “This species is highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, such as increased sea surface temperature and associated shifts in prey (e.g. Herring, Sandeel) distribution, abundance and quality.
“Breeding failures are usually assumed to be due to food shortages as changing temperatures can cause mismatches between plankton blooms, prey abundance peaks and Puffin breeding seasons, leading to poor chick growth, shortened nesting periods and lower fledging success.”
Conservationist WWF says climate change is also threatening puffins by causing more frequent, more extreme weather events which put the birds at risk in their breeding colonies and while far out at sea during the rest of the year.
Warmer waters mean that in some parts of the North Atlantic the food chain is getting badly out of sync.
Puffins’ favourite food is sandeels. Their larvae usually hatch just as their preferred food, tiny crustaceans called copepods, “bloom”.
But the warming of the seas meant that between 2000 and 2016 the copepod blooming occurred 20 days before the emergence of the sandeel larvae.
This led to fewer sandeels for puffins to feed their young and the collapse of some colonies.
On Iceland’s Westman Islands puffin numbers have plunged by 40 percent since 2003, says the RSPB. It is the equivalent of nearly two million breeding pairs.
A Westman Islands study using data going back to 1880 said last month: “It is very likely that this decline is at least partially caused by the increasing Sea Surface Temperatures around Iceland, and that the situation will continue to aggravate with global warming.”
We can’t afford to wait two years, five years, 10 years – this is the moment
COP26 President Alok Sharma
The study led by Dr Erpur Snaer Hansen suggests that warmer winter seas lead to fewer and smaller sandeels.
It said: “Due to higher mortality and lower fecundity of sandeels, puffins may thus face food scarcity after relatively warm winters.”
It warned: “If the conditions during the early 20th century Arctic warming can be extrapolated to the future, the projected warming of the oceans will have negative effects on puffin offspring production in southwest Iceland, a present and historical stronghold for this species.”
An Oxford University study also found that puffin declines are driven by a lack of prey.
The study tracked puffins at a Norwegian colony, whose numbers have crashed by 80 percent in 50 years, the Westman Islands off Iceland and the more successful Skomer Island off Pembrokeshire.
At the struggling colonies adult birds had to fly further – up to 60 mile round trips – to find food. They returned with lower quality prey and fed their chicks less often.
As a result, the pufflings either grew less well or starved.
Dr Annette Fayet, a research fellow at the University of Oxford and lead author on the study, said: “Our study highlights the huge impact that climate-driven changes in prey availability can have on seabird populations—here forcing birds to feed much further away than they normally would, and preventing them from feeding their offspring sufficiently, which ultimately causes chick starvation.
“Many other seabird species in the region feed on similar prey, so the effects we detected in puffins are also likely to occur in other species.”
Other Icelandic birds to suffer from the sandeel shortage are razorbills and kittiwakes.
Meanwhile, an American relative of the puffin, the thick-billed murre, is dying in of overheating as temperatures rise.
Canadian researchers found that the seabirds struggle at temperatures as low as 21C and can die in their nests on sunny days.
Emily Choy of McGill University wrote in the Journal of Experimental Biology: “Overheating is an important and understudied effect of climate change on Arctic wildlife.”
On Iceland, other birds to suffer from rising temperatures include the little auk, another relative of the puffin, which has disappeared.
Warming seas have cut numbers of Arctic fish such as cod and capelin while mackerel have moved up from the south, according to the Icelandic Met Office.
Dr Hilmar Malmquist, the director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History, said: “A few years ago some puffin colonies collapsed around Iceland and this was linked to a collapse in the sandeel population.
“Puffins have been recovering in the North but in the South they are still struggling.
“We have lost the Little Auk and we are losing other species such as razorbills.
“In our lakes and rivers the population of Arctic char, which is a relative of salmon, is shrinking because it cannot tolerate the warming of shallow lakes. Our most common native tree, birch, is growing at higher elevations in the hills and mountains.
“And at sea capelin and cod are moving North and away from Iceland but new species, such as mackerel, are coming in which is linked to the warming of coastal seas.
“We do not know how it will end which is not a pleasant uncertainty.”
Green moves that endanger waders
A British wading bird could become one of the first species to benefit from climate change only for it to be its downfall, a British expert warned yesterday.
Icelandic black-tailed godwits, which winter in Britain, have enjoyed a 10-fold population increase compared to around 120 years ago.
These large waders, with brick red chests in the breeding season, long legs and long bills, have expanded from Iceland’s southern lowlands to coastal areas around the country.
But Graham Appleton, a British expert who has studied waders for 40 years including 20 years in Iceland, warned that their success could be threatened by moves to tackle climate change.
He said Iceland is planting forests to offset carbon emissions which in turn will damage the nesting habitats of waders such as the godwits.
It is also planning wind farms which pose a threat because they can occupy nesting areas and because the birds are not used to the whirring turbine blades.
Writing in the journal Perspective, Mr Appleton said: “When experiencing the abundance of Icelandic waders in the lowland areas, it is difficult to appreciate that this is really a very fragile system.”
He said Iceland’s growing human population and the expansion of agriculture pose a threat to waders.
He added: “Large-scale, subsidised afforestation of lowland areas for timber and climate mitigation is underway and seems almost tailored (unintentionally) to maximise the impact on breeding waders by targeting open, vegetated lowlands with many small plantations.
“Icelanders have thus far been mostly reliant on hydro- and geothermal power but the development of wind energy is imminent, with many wind-farm proposals across Iceland being considered.”
Ironically black-tailed godwits have benefited from the warming climate because it has lengthened their breeding season and allowed them to produce more chicks.
Their breeding population on Iceland has grown to more than 50,000 or about 10 times the level in the early 20th century, said a study by José Alves in Ecology & Evolution.
In warm years the godwits nest about 11 days earlier than in the coldest.
Chicks that hatch early have a much better chance of surviving to adulthood.
They have more time to fatten up before migrating south for the winter which in turn lets them fly in flocks dominated by experienced adults.
But Mr Appleton, who worked for the British Trust for Ornithology for many years, said the advantages of the warming climate could be undermined by moves to tackle it.
He said: “It seems like the land-use patterns of the last thousand years, which have been largely favourable for waders, are now in reverse.”
Comment by Richard Gregory
The world is in the midst of a climate and nature emergency. You don’t have to visit the Arctic to see how climate change is already affecting nature, it’s happening here, in the UK too. Rising temperatures and the more extreme weather brought on by climate change pose very serious threats to our own bird populations and other wildlife.
Around our island nation, warming oceans are shifting and changing in ways we have not seen before, and this is a huge challenge for our seabirds, who are reliant on stable seas for their food. In the North Sea, the temperature has risen by 1oC in just 25 years.
The UK is home to internationally important seabird colonies — like Bempton Cliffs, The Farnes, and St Kilda — and species like kittiwakes and puffins are already struggling to raise chicks as the food they need moves away from traditional haunts.
On land, more cold-loving species like our mountain and upland birds such as the dotterel and ptarmigan are being pushed northwards and up the slope to find perfect conditions – and quite soon they will simply run out of space and disappear.
Many species, including birds, butterflies, moths and dragonflies, have moved north over the last four decades. On average, 20km per decade.
Others are arriving on our southern shores, escaping an ever hotter southern and central Europe. Many of these arrivals, like herons, egrets and spoonbills, are making a home on our nature reserves, which just goes to show the vital importance of our protected areas in a warming world.
Other smaller breeding birds here, like the Dartford warbler, benefit from milder winters, so they are increasing in number and spreading north, although these gains are mirrored by losses further south in Europe.
Some birds seem to be responding to climate by changing their migration patterns. Some are travelling less far on the southward journeys, and others are abandoning migration altogether and staying close to their breeding sites year around.
Some birds like blackcaps and chiffchaffs are switching their migration routes altogether to make shorter journeys to new wintering areas. However, migration is already a perilous venture for birds, and climate change just adds to their existing woes of habitat loss and other threats.
Today, the IPCC has published a report warning that time is running out to limit warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade but that the target is still very much within reach if we act urgently now. We and our wildlife desperately need to see ambition from our leaders, and our government must now change the course of the future before it’s too late.
This article by John Ingham was first published by The EXpress on 9 August 2021. Lead Image: Puffin peril… The birds face threats from rising temperatures (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster). Richard Gregory is head of monitoring at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). John Ingham and our photographer Jonathan Buckmaster offset the greenhouse gases from their return flights to Iceland with C Level Earth.
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