SEP 17, 2017 4:53 PM PDT

Is climate change the culprit of all the dead birds washing up on the Bering Sea shores?

If you were to be walking along the shore of one of the islands in the Bering Sea within the last several weeks, you would want to watch your step. Since the beginning of August, residents and scientists have found over 800 dead seabirds washed ashore – and those are just the ones that have been documented. Though the cause of this mass die-off of seabirds is technically unknown, it’s likely linked to the warming of the North Pacific Ocean.

A dead northern fulmar was found near Shishmaref on August 13. Photo: Ken Stenek / Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team

This summer was the fourth year in a row that the Bering Sea’s temperatures were uncharacteristically warm. Because the ice melted early this year, open waters to begin absorbing heat earlier, too. "You had much longer for the water to get warmer this year," said Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service in Alaska.

Warming seas can throw off a fragile equilibrium within an ecosystem. With warmer waters, some organisms thrive while others don’t survive. Given that necropsies of the dead seabirds show that they were emaciated (most did not have food in their stomachs or intestines and little or no fat on their bodies), the automatic question is, what happened to the seabirds’ food? Scientists are currently running to answer that question.

The Fish and Wildlife Service reported that the first birds were found on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering; since then dead birds have been spotted on Bering beaches as far north as the Inupiat villages Shismaref and Deering.

While this is not the first mass die-off that the region has seen, Julia Parrish, executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, points out that this time the impacted seabirds, northern fulmars and short-tailed shearwaters, "are different kinds of species than all the other die-offs that we have seen.” These species are long-distance migratory fliers; shearwaters can migrate from distances as far as Australia, and they likely arrive to the region hungry. If their food source isn’t plentiful, the birds’ future doesn’t look great.

"Right now, we know that they are starving to death and can't hold their heads above water, and they're drowning," said Ken Stenek, a Shishmaref resident who has volunteered to help count the dead birds that are washing up on his community’s shores.

"There's no sign of disease. We will continue to test for that," Robb Kaler, a FWS biologist. FWS also plans to continue investigations into possible links to toxins produced by harmful algal blooms which are also spurred by warming waters.

Sources: FWS, Alaska Dispatch News

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
OCT 27, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Why doping polycrystalline solar cells improves efficiency
OCT 27, 2020
Why doping polycrystalline solar cells improves efficiency
While there is certainly a fair amount of warranted pessimism about the future of our planet, there is also warranted op ...
NOV 05, 2020
Plants & Animals
Violence in Overcrowded in Gorilla Groups Slows Population Growth
NOV 05, 2020
Violence in Overcrowded in Gorilla Groups Slows Population Growth
Since the late 1960s, conservationists and researchers have worked to save gorillas from extinction. A new study by the ...
NOV 24, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
Cracking the Code of a Locust Swarm
NOV 24, 2020
Cracking the Code of a Locust Swarm
With a reputation for destruction that goes back to ancient Egypt, locust swarms are once again a major problem for some ...
NOV 30, 2020
Earth & The Environment
How is the Mongolian Plateau faring climate change?
NOV 30, 2020
How is the Mongolian Plateau faring climate change?
New research published in the journal Science predicts the future of Mongolia’s semi-arid plateau, saying tha ...
JAN 01, 2021
Earth & The Environment
Reading the history of monsoons
JAN 01, 2021
Reading the history of monsoons
New data from river basins in the Asian Monsoon region reconstruct the histories of annual river discharge from 41 river ...
JAN 18, 2021
Earth & The Environment
Another record we didn't want: 2020 was the hottest year yet
JAN 18, 2021
Another record we didn't want: 2020 was the hottest year yet
It will likely come as no surprise that 2020 held another record that we wish it didn’t: hottest year on record. W ...
Loading Comments...