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Migratory Bird Day: Remember the Arctic!

Arctic terns in Ny Alesund, Svalbard

This weekend, bird and nature-lovers around the world will be marking “World Migratory Bird Day“. This is a relatively new annual event in the global calendar of “special days”. It has only been celebrated since 2006. You may well be sceptical about the value of yet another day of “xyz”, quite simply because of the sheer number of them. This one was the brainchild of, amongst others, Bert Lenten, who is currently deputy-head of CMS, the Convention on Migratory Species. I have interviewed him on bird-related issues a few times in recent years. CMS, which is part of UNEP, has its headquarters here in Bonn, close to my Deutsche Welle office. The CMS agreement is also known as the Bonn Convention.

When I talked to Bert this week, he told me the idea of having a World Migratory Bird Day came up when bird flu first hit Europe in 2005. There was such a lot of panic and so many negative reactions to migratory birds, wrongly suspected of being a main cause of the outbreak, that Bert and some colleagues had the idea of reminding people once a year that birds are actually something positive.

At Zackenberg, Greenland

Tern chasing off ice blogger, Svalbard!

Migratory birds, from large albatrosses, storks or geese to smaller terns, swallows or tiny sanderlings cover huge distances between their winter quarters and their breeding grounds every year. The Arctic is home to thousands of them every summer, when they fly up to breed. The Arctic tern is actually thought to hold the record for long-distance migration, flying between the Antarctic and the Arctic. I remember being attacked several times on Svalbard in spring when I advertently got too close to some of their nesting sites. No harm done, I hasten to add. I enjoyed watching their antics.

Now, with climate change affecting the Arctic much more drastically than the rest of the world, birds are finding conditions very different from they used to be. Ferdinand Spina is head of Science at Italy’s National Institute for Wildlife Protection and Research ISPRA, in Bologna, Italy. He is also in charge of the Italian bird ringing centre, and currently also Chair of the Scientific Council of CMS. I talked to him last week and he stressed that climate change is becoming one of the greatest threats to migratory birds. The Arctic is one of the most obvious illustrations.

“Birds are a very important component of wildlife in the Arctic. There are different species breeding in the Arctic. The Arctic is subject to huge risks due to global warming. It is crucially important that we conserve such a unique ecosystem in the world. Birds have adapted to living in the Arctic over millions of years of evolution, and it’s a unique physiological and feeding adaptation. And it is our duty to conserve the Arctic as one of the few if not the only ecosystems which is still relatively intact in the world. This is a major duty we have from all possible perspectives, including an ethical and moral duty, ” he says.

Listen to Fernando Spina

I couldn’t agree more, Fernando. We talked about the seasonal mismatch, when birds arrive too early or too late to find the insects they expect to encounter and need to feed their young. When I visited Zackenberg station in eastern Greenland in 2009, Lars Holst Hansen, the deputy station leader, told me the long-tailed skuas were not breeding because they rely on lemmings as prey. The lemmings were scarce because of changes in the snow cover.

Lars Holst Hansen is back in Zackenberg right now. He also takes some great wildlife photos, so I am happy to recommend a look at his site.

Jeroen Reneerkens is another regular visitor to Zackenberg, as he tracks the migration of Sanderlings between Africa and Greenland. A great project and an informative website!

Jeroen with sanderlings at Zackenberg

 Morten Rasch from the Arctic Environment Dept of Aarhus University in Denmark is the coordinator of one of the most ambitious ecological monitoring programmes in the Arctic. The Greenland Environment Monitoring Programme includes 2 stations, Zackenberg, which is in the High Arctic region and Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, in the “Lower” Arctic. Hansen and other members of Rasch’s teams monitor 3,500 different parameters in a cross-disciplinary project, combining biology, geology, glaciology, all aspects of research into the fragile eco-systems of the Arctic. At that time, he told me during an interview,  ten years of monitoring had already come up with worrying results:

“We have experienced that temperature is increasing, we have experienced an increasing amount of extreme flooding events in the river, we have experienced that phenology of different species at the start-up of their growing season or the appearance of different  insects for instance now comes at least 14 days earlier than when we started. And for some species, even one month earlier. And that’s a lot.  You have to realise the entire growing season in these areas is only 3 months. When we start up at Zackenberg in late May, or the beginning of June, the ecosystem is completely covered in snow and more or less frozen, and when we leave, in normal years – or BEFORE climate change took over – then we left around 1st September and the ecosystem actually started to freeze up.  So the entire biological ecosystem only has 3 months to reproduce and so on. And in relation to that, a movement in the start of the system between 14 days and one month – that’s a lot.”

I can’t write about birds and climate change in the Arctic without mentioning George Divoky,  an ornithologist whose bird-monitoring has actually turned into climate-change monitoring on Cooper Island, off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. George looks after a colony of Black Guillemots and spends his summer on the island. In recent years, he has taken to putting up bear-proof nest boxes for the birds, because polar bears increasingly come to visit, as the melting of the sea ice has reduced their hunting options. He has also observed the presence of new types of birds which die not previously come this far north. His website is well worth following.

So, friends of the Arctic. Spare a thought for our feathered friends this weekend. They pollinate plants, control pests and insect populations – and give us that happy feeling of springtime we are enjoying in Bonn this weekend. I am reminded of a young “climate ambassador” in Alaska, flabbergasted to see that the glaciers we had come to observe were no longer visible from the Visitors’ Centre built for that purpose just a few years before. “Everything’s connected”, was his simple statement. Presumably that is why he has spent so much time developing low-carbon solutions for companies around the globe.

Date

May 10, 2013 | 1:46 pm

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Climate change in pictures while you wait…

Alaska and south America are the regions where the glaciers are currently melting fastest, according to a report released in Cancun. I experienced that first-hand in Alaska in 2008, when I started the ice blog.

This is one of the pictures taken from the Begich Boggs glacier visitors centre. There’s a visiting centre purpose built to see the Portage glacier – but where the glacier has retreated so far it’s no longer visible from this point at all.In 2008, we were told it had receded more than 2 miles in 70 years.
On the last official day of Cancun, the wrangling is still going on – same procedure as every year? A freelance colleague dropped in just now . “There doesn’t seem to be anything happening in Cancun”.. he said. Yeah, that seems to be the feeling. My colleague Nathan Witkop from the Living Planet programme is there. You might like to read
his latest summary while you’re waiting.
I’ve also been keeping an eye on the Global Ideas blog You might enjoy a look at that.
And if you are interested in watching some more pictures and video and reading/hearing from some researchers in the field, have a look at these pictures from Lars Hansen who took some great shots at the Zackenberg Monitoring Station in Greenland.
That will all help pass the time waiting for the Cancun closer…

Date

December 10, 2010 | 2:31 pm

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Alarming rise in Arctic methane emissions

Sound familiar? Ice-blog readers will remember methane is more than 20 times as powerful as CO2 as a greenhouse gas, and that scientists in the Arctic are measuring the extent of methane emissions from melting permafrost.
There are billions of tonnes of methane captured in the Arctic soil. As temperatures rise and the permafrost melts, more methane is released. It increases the greenhouse effect further, resulting in a “feedback loop”, with the increased warming melting more permafrost and releasing even more methane.
Zackenberg station in Greenland, which I visited this year, is one of the Arctic stations measuring methane. If you haven’t heard the programme I made including interviews with Prof. Morten Rasch, who heads the Greenland environment monitoring programme, it’s available under the “climate” banner on the right of DW’s environment page. There’s also a photo gallery with brief texts if you don’t have the time to listen to the full feature.
Climate Monitoring in Arctic Greenland
Now a study presented in the journal Nature reports a massive rise in the amount of methane being released from the Arctic permafrost.
See also today’s edition of the Guardian.
Guardian’s David Adam on rise in Arctic methane emissions
Although only 2% of global methane comes from the Arctic, the increase is highest in the Arctic, which is warming much faster than the rest of the planet.
The Guardian quotes Prof. Paul Palmer from Edinburgh University as saying the study “does not show the Arctic has passed a tipping point, but it should open people’s eyes. it shows there is a positive feedback and that higher temperatures bring higher emissions and faster warming”.
Edinburgh Climate Expert Paul Palmer

Date

January 15, 2010 | 8:57 am

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Polar Bear at Zackenberg

I got a mail today from Lars Holst Hansen, deputy station chief during the summer season at Zackenberg Ecological Research Station, the one I visited in July, and a biologist with NERI, the National Environment Research Institute.
It seems there have been several polar bear visits to the station, right up on to the beach. Lars, many thanks for your short report. Here is one of Lars’ pictures.

PHOTO BY LARS HOLST HANSEN
You may well ask what a polar bear is doing on land like this at this time of the year, no ice in sight anywhere. Presumably he is hungry. It seems he also went close to some Zackenberg kayakers. I’m hoping Lars will send me the scientist’s  view of the visit.
Thanks again Lars, and look forward to hearing more from you.

Date

September 10, 2009 | 4:01 pm

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Unexpected Explorers

As we descended to the lake, I was surprised to see that the party waiting on the beach to be picked up was a different generation from the young scientists one tends to encounter in these remote and often trying areas. The two women and three men waving us in were, I discovered, the “British North East Greenland project”. Now retired, but lovers of the Arctic, they have all the necessary gear, bought special inflatable boats and come to this remote region every year for around 3 weeks, set up camp and go hiking, boating and collecting samples for various scientists. They had also made some archaeological finds. One of the ladies told me she had two artificial knees. She walked with a stick, but still managed to get up the ladder and into the twin otter, with a little help from her friends. More power to you folks, and if you read this when you get home, please put some info about your project onto the blog, and an email address where I can contact you, if you like. I think your project is great.
The group had their stuff all packed up, and I now found out why the front of the plane had been cleared.

The captain and co-pilot do everything on these routes, and we all helped get the equipment loaded onto the plane.

Once it was all inside, we just had to trust we wouldn’t need to reach that emergency exit.

Our next destination was Mesterswig, a Danish military aerodrome used, like Daneborg, as a drop-off and pick-up point.

My fellow travellers told me the government had been threatening to close it down for the last 20 years. With the latest resurge in military interest in the Arctic, it probably has a good chance of staying open.

Mesterswig control

The group has storage space in Mesterswig where they store their gear until next year. They’re well known and welcome. While they stowed it all, our copilot had a well-earned break on the runway. I wonder what insect repellent he uses. You can’t tell to look at him we were all under mega-attack from thousands of giant mosquitoes. (I’d have liked our Zackenberg insect experts Gergely and Tomas to have a look, but the only samples I have are somewhat squashed..)

From here, we headed down to Constable Point, for refuelling before we tackled the longer stretch to Iceland. (Flying from East to West Greenland goes, I’m afraid, via Iceland, there are few direct travel options). There were plenty more beautiful ice and snow views on route.This is a very spectacular part of the world.

We found the fire brigade waiting. We had been warned our captain would be radio reporting some engine trouble – to provide a fire alarm test for the ground team.

Well mastered.
The next entry will come from western Greenland.

Date

July 27, 2009 | 9:43 am

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