Climate change is a game changer. By the end of this century climate change will alter what we see and do not see. Climate change will reorder the world.
Let’s focus on one group of birds – seabirds. Within this group let’s include all terns, gulls, sulids, tubenoses, etc. In fact, we should include any bird that depends on the sea or coast for nesting and feeding (such as Wilson’s plover or reddish egret). Seabirds spend their lives in, at, or near the water, and nest on islands, beaches, and in coastal wetlands. Seabirds are among the most vulnerable to climate change.I recently visited a nesting seabird colony in Jamaica with Lisa Sorenson and Holly Robertson of SCSCB, and Brandon Hay of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation. We boated out to a series of tiny islands off of Portland Bight in southern Jamaica – Big Half Moon Cay, Little Half Moon Cay, and several smaller islets. Little Half Moon is where the birds were nesting when we visited. Brown noddies and bridled terns were the common nesting species on this cay and day.
Little Half Moon is minuscule, a dab of limestone and sand that offers refuge to nesting seabirds. Here the birds build their nests on every twig, limb, and branch. No surface goes unused; no tree limb is without a nest.
Birds nest on similar islands and cays throughout the Caribbean. Predators are either absent or restricted on these islands. Nesting on the mainland shore is impossible given the human population. The islands, in general, are what these birds have left.What happens to an island like Little Half Moon Cay when the sea rises only one meter? What about two meters? Let’s ignore the long-term projections. For the sake of this argument, let’s constrain our focus to the end of this century.
According to the US National Research Council,
Global sea levels could rise two to three times higher over the next century than previous UN estimates (report released June 2012). By 2100, the NRC estimates that global sea levels will rise between 20-55 inches (50 and 140 centimeters)…In the near term, the NRC predicted a global sea level rise of three to nine inches (eight to 23 centimeters) by 2030 (over the 2000 level) and seven to 19 inches (18 to 48 centimeters) by 2050.
I have no idea as to the elevation of Little Half Moon Cay, but I suspect that one meter puts the island under water. The same goes for Big Half Moon Cay and the other islets off of Portland Bight. There is no fudge factor. Even one meter is a game changer.
And what about an additional meter above the high-tide line of increasingly acidified ocean water?
Now, consider the United States’ Gulf coast, or the eastern seaboard, or the southern California coast, or Mexico’s Baja California. No fudge factor here either. For example, 95% of the world’s population of Heermann’s Gulls nests on the island of Isla Rasa. Isla Rasa is included in the Islas del Golfo de California Biosphere Reserve, as is Isla Angel de la Guarda, home to another breeding colony. The sea level will rise whether or not the island is within a biosphere reserve. The rising ocean knows no boundaries, and respects no protected area.
Ocean acidification is the name given to the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth’s oceans, caused by the uptake of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. About a quarter of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes into the oceans, where it forms carbonic acid. Ocean acidification, which like global climate change is driven by excessive levels of carbon dioxide, has been regarded by climate scientists as the “equally evil twin” of global climate change.
Here is my proposition. Regardless of your partisanship, regardless of your political bent, regardless of your country, consider the implications of sea level rise. For the sake of argument ignore the cause. Let’s pretend that climate change is natural, just one of those orbital blips. Natural or anthropogenic, the impacts on Wilson’s plover, to name only one, are the same. For the moment, ignore cause and consider effect.Now open your eyes. Consider the birds of our coasts. Least terns, black skimmers, royal terns, laughing gulls, Forster’s terns, snowy plovers, Wilson’s plovers, reddish egrets – these of a few of the losers from my own backyard. Where will piping plovers and whooping cranes winter? Where will the redheads forage once the rising sea waters inundate the sea grasses they depend on? Forget one meter; these birds are gone at one foot. And where do they go? Do the tidal flats and beaches march inland, or do humans, desperate to save coastal communities and industries, harden the coast thus eliminating the exposed shore?
The best scenario we face is if climate change is caused by man. That’s right, the best scenario. If anthropogenic we can change our behaviors that are behind the threat. If natural (think ice age), then our course is set. If natural, relax and enjoy the ride.I am an optimist, and I believe that man is behind the climate change we see today and envision in the future. If we do care about these birds, and I mean care in a personal way, then we should lead our friends and neighbors into addressing the behaviors that must be changed.
Of course we must address short-term risks. But as we squeeze through the immediate bottleneck we must also recognize that short-term gains will be lost if we do not ameliorate climate change and sea level rise. Sea level rise is going to happen no matter what we do. How much it rises has everything to do with our actions.
I find this approach to be comforting. Focusing on the birds clears my vision and steels my soul. I care about least terns, seaside sparrows, and elegant terns. I know these birds are blameless victims in a maddening partisanship and competitiveness that paralyzes our ability and willingness to act. All I ask is that we stay focused on the birds. With them in mind, the rest will be easy.
The following are links to website that allow you to see the impacts of sea level rise at various levels.
Birds At Risk