Impacts of climate and oceanographic change on seabirds

This project examines how changing climate and oceanography affects seabirds.

 Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, taking off from water, Farne Islands, Northumberland


Recent research suggests changes within our oceans, driven by our changing climate, could be linked to breeding failure and declines in some of the UK's seabird colonies. However, these links have only been convincingly demonstrated for kittiwakes, and only for certain areas within the North Sea system. It is not known to what extent similar factors are responsible for declines of other seabird species and in other regions of the UK, where oceanographic characteristics differ.

This project aims to examine the role of various physical oceanic variables, such as temperature, seasonal stratification and biological variables such as plankton and fish abundance. Data from the RSPB's FAME project has been used to work out where the birds are foraging from colonies spread throughout the UK, including the Atlantic coasts, so a wider picture of important influences can be gained.

To effectively conserve and manage these seabird populations, we must have a clear understanding of what influences each species in different regions, and how these may be affected as the climate continues to change.


  • Model the relationships between physical oceanographic parameters (e.g. sea temperature, density stratification) and seabird reproductive/population parameters.
  • Model the relationships between biological oceanographic parameters (e.g. plankton abundance, fish abundance) and seabird reproductive/population parameters.
  • Compare between species with different feeding methods (e.g. plankton feeders vs. fish feeders), and species which vary in their dependence on sand eels (prey fish known to be particularly susceptible to climate-mediated impacts).

Key Dates

  • 2013: Project start - analysis of kittiwake breeding success in relation to sea temperature and stratification.
  • 2015: Publication of paper on kittiwakes and ocean stratification. 
  • 2016: Work undertaken on the effect of sea temperature on storm petrel survival, and the effect of sea temperature and fishery on sand eels and kittiwakes in the North Sea.


Results from the study of ocean stratification and kittiwake breeding performance have been published (Carroll et al 2015).


Across all studied colonies, higher kittiwake breeding success was associated with weaker stratification before breeding and lower sea surface temperatures during the breeding season.

Climate change projections indicated that breeding success could decline by 21 to 43 per cent between 1961−90 and 2070−99. Climate change therefore poses a longer-term threat to kittiwakes, but as this will be mediated via availability of key prey species, other marine apex predators could also face similar threats.


  • This study was jointly funded by the RSPB and Natural England (NE) through the Action for Birds in England partnership.
  • Tracking data collected under FAME and STAR projects were funded by the EU regional development fund through its Atlantic area program and by Marine Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and JNCC.
  • Bardsey Island and Puffin Island tracking was funded by a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) CASE studentship, Environment Wales and Natural Resources Wales (NRW).
  • Coquet Island tracking was funded by a NERC CASE studentship.
  • Flamborough Head tracking was funded by the LEADER programme and NE.
  • Isle of May tracking was jointly funded by NERC and the RSPB.
  • Lambay tracking was funded by the EU regional development fund through its Atlantic area program and BirdWatch Ireland (Seabird Appeal).



Coast on a stormy day

Dr Mark Bolton

Principal Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science
Tagged with: Habitat: Marine and intertidal Species: Kittiwake Project status: Ongoing Project types: Research