Scientists are attributing a rapid collapse of seabird populations around Great Britain’s Northern Isles in recent years to global warming. Rising sea temperatures, they say, are upsetting the delicate balance of the region’s ecological relationships. Microscopic plankton, which form the lowest rung on the marine food chain, are moving north as ocean waters warm, depriving small fish like sandeel of their primary food source. As these populations of small fish decline, area seabirds, which depend on them as food, stop reproducing and eventually starve.
The last seabird census for the Northern Isles took place in 2000. At that point, researchers counted more than 172,000 breeding pairs of guillemots, 6,800 pairs of great skuas, 24,000 pairs of arctic terns and 16,700 pairs of Shetland kittiwakes, among other seabird species. In a more recently completed census, researchers found little evidence of any of the birds, signaling one of the most sudden negative effects of human-induced climate change.
“The catastrophe [of these] seabirds is just a foretaste of what lies ahead,” says Tony Juniper, director of the UK’s Friends of the Earth. “It shows that climate change is happening now, with devastating consequences here in Britain, and it shows that reducing the pollution-causing changes to the Earth’s climate should now be the global number one political priority.”