Climate change

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Climate change

News and views from the RSPB on climate change and what you can do about it.
  • Dog eat dog: species interactions hold the key to how climate change affects nature

    Guest post by Richard Bradbury, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    Recently, I’ve been involved in a great collaboration between partners from across the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI). Led by the British Trust for Ornithology, the first findings of the project have just been published online here in the journal Global Change Biology. The recent IPCC report clearly shows that climate change is having wide-ranging impacts on wildlife. In this paper, we were interested to know exactly how climate change might be affecting species –is it primarily through direct effects on species (eg succumbing to extreme cold, drought or heat) or is it more complicated than that? The answer to this question will be really important for figuring out how we might try to help species to adapt.

    To find out, the team reviewed almost 150 published studies of climatic impacts on natural populations. Although you might expect that most species are responding directly to climatic changes, the majority of impacts of climate change actually occur through altered interactions between species within an ecosystem. One caveat to the result is that the vast majority of the information comes from the temperate and polar zones. There is a pronounced lack of information from the tropics, where most species’ occur – a real wake-up call for more climate impacts monitoring and research in these areas.

    Each species shares an ecosystem with other species, some of which it might eat, and others that might eat or compete with it. It appears that it is changes to the populations or activity of these other species which caused many of the impacts observed. The higher up the food chain, the more likely that climate change had its impact via these indirect mechanisms, rather than a more direct impact of, for instance, changed temperature or extreme rainfall events.

    For example, Arctic fox populations have been affected not only by expanding red fox populations but also by declining lemming populations, the latter being linked to changes in snow cover. 

    Arctic Fox. By Algkalv (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    In the UK, the golden plover is affected because hotter, drier conditions dry out the peat in which the larvae of its cranefly prey live, killing them and therefore reducing the food supply for the plover chicks. Of course, that counts as a direct effect on the craneflies!

    Golden plover in the breeding season. By Chris Gomersall (RSPB images)


    A cranefly – key food for golden plover and many other species of birds. Their larvae line in the ground and can die in dry conditions. By Matthew Carroll.

    So, how does this help in the fight to help species adapt to the changes that are already in the system because of climate change? Well, conservation action already includes managing interactions between species, such as controlling invasive species or reducing predation risk, so we already have some of the conservation tools that we are going to need. This gives hope that we can help vulnerable species to adapt to some of the effects of climate change. For example, in the UK uplands, we can restore degraded peatland habitats to boost cranefly populations, and increase their resilience to climate change, and so maintaining food for golden plovers. The long term success of these conservation responses will be linked to our efforts to contain climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and so limit its impacts.  And as climate change increases the conservation effort required, we’ll need appropriate conservation funding to rise to the challenge.

    So saving nature in a changing climate will need a big collaborative effort, across adaptation and mitigation, and across science, conservation, politics and society. The continued growth of the CCI, and the recent launch of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, will make an important contribution to this effort - it’s a really exciting time to be a scientist at RSPB!

  • What effect is climate change having on butterflies?

    Guest post by Dr Martin Warren, Chief Executive of Butterfly Conservation

    The latest report from the IPCC concludes that we are facing a big change in world’s climate that will have a huge impact on humans and wildlife alike. 

    Data gathered by Butterfly Conservation shows that butterflies are already being strongly affected by climate change. More than one-quarter of UK species are spreading north, with butterflies like the Comma moving at 10km per year. 

    This is part of a major shift of butterfly populations across Europe that has been going on for at least 20 years. Species have been spreading northwards across Europe and several reports have shown that colonies have shifted uphill. 

    The problem is that even this pace of change is not keeping up with the warming climate, so butterflies are lagging behind. Many species are becoming threatened as they cannot move to keep pace with climate change now that their habitats are so small and fragmented. 

    A Climatic Risk Atlas of European butterflies shows that under the extreme scenario of a 4C rise, which is now looking more likely, one quarter of Europe’s butterflies will lose 95% of their current range, leading to a potentially huge spate of extinctions.

    The IPCC and recent Met Office reports conclude that there will be more extreme weather events in the future, with heavy rains and droughts becoming more frequent. This could have a devastating effect on butterflies and local extinction events will become more frequent. 

    Climate change will add to the already extreme problems facing butterflies and other insects.  Populations are already dwindling rapidly due to habitat loss, which makes them even more vulnerable to a changing climate. We can expect an increasing number of local extinctions, from which our specialist species will never recover. But, the more generalist species, whose habitats are more widespread, may well benefit and spread into new areas.

    The threat from climate change gives fresh urgency to Butterfly Conservation’s strategy of conserving species at a landscape scale, making existing habitats bigger, better managed and better connected. A landmark report published in 2012 shows that this approach is beginning to reverse the decline of several threatened species. 

    We need to make populations far more resilient and better able to respond to climate change. That can only be done by conserving species at a landscape scale. Butterflies are useful barometers of how other wildlife might be affected, so these solutions will undoubtedly benefit a wide range of other wildlife groups.

  • Kittiwake ghost towns

    Guest post by Nik Shelton in our media team

    The kittiwake is a species we often talk about when we are asked about how climate affects wildlife.

    Last week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report covered that very issue and again we highlighted the kittiwake when talking to the media about climate and wildlife. They have declined rapidly - by as much as 68% in Scotland since 1986.

    Before writing this post I asked around colleagues to try and unearth some pictures of kittiwake colonies in Scotland at their height in the 1980s. This proved to be more difficult than I’d imagined, and I found photos hard to locate.

    In retrospect this shouldn’t have been unexpected – these cliffs were thronging with kittiwakes year after year - building nests on precarious ledges, creating a chorus of shrieks and turning the rocks white with their droppings. They had always been there. Before the era where everything we see is quickly snapped on a handy pocket device and instantly uploaded for all the world to see, perhaps no-one felt there was any urgency in recording a wildlife spectacle that was always going to be there.

    From 19th Century America there are reports of passenger pigeon flocks billions-strong, a mile wide and so long they took several hours to pass overhead. Branches would break under the sheer weight of birds as up to 90 pairs nested in a single tree.

    Although photographers were busy recording the rapidly growing nation, none felt the need to point their cameras as these astonishing flocks of birds. They were just too common-place – not unusual or interesting enough to waste a photographic plate on. Martha – the species’ endling – died in Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago this year.

    I did, however find two photos from kittiwake colonies in the past which could be compared with similar photos taken more recently. These were taken at Row Head on Orkney in the 1990s and then again 2013, and also on the nearby Island of Papa Westray in the 1980s and then again in 2009.


    Row Head on Orkney in the 1990s and then again 2013

    Papa Westray in the 1980s and then again in 2009

    Please excuse the quality of the earlier photos – but take a close look at these images and you will see stark visual evidence of the decline of a species.

    So why are they declining, and why did we not see this coming? Well the answer is not easy and it has taken a lot of work by scientists to get to the bottom of it. This useful blog by my colleague Matthew Carroll – much more scientifically knowledgeable than me – explains what we believe is happening to kittiwakes in northern Scotland and the rest of the UK and where our research is taking us. If you want to dive deeper into the science behind kittiwake declines then head here.

    In short, it looks like rising sea temperatures and other changes to the marine environment are affecting populations of sand eels – not in fact eels, but small silver-grey fish which kittiwakes depend on for food during the breeding season, when energetic demands are vast.

    We need to continue our scientific research to better understand this relationship, we need to mitigate the future impacts of climate change through appropriately placed renewable energies, but most importantly for the kittiwake, we need to help it adapt to the changes by recovering the degraded seas that exist around many of our seabird colonies.

    The impact of climate change on species is often unclear and sometimes by the time we are able to pin it down, it’s already too late. Costa Rica’s golden toad is believed by many to be the first extinction due to climate change when changes in atmospheric conditions in its cloud forest home meant a disease it carried became more virulent and wiped out the population.

    The golden toad was well photographed before its demise – so at least we have these images as echoes of a lost species.

    Kittiwakes still hang on in northern Scotland despite the major decline – if you have any pictures of colonies on Orkney or Shetland when they were at their peak two or more decades ago then please email them to me at nik.shelton@rspb.org.uk. We would like to build up a gallery of images which we can use to show people the impact climate change is having on our seabirds and our seas.