Researchers in France have identified a creature they say is benefiting from the effects of climate change: the wandering albatross of the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica.
Wind speeds over the Southern Ocean have been increasing over the past three decades and those stronger winds are boosting birds in the area to faster flying speeds, according to new research. Winds have increased overall at the world’s oceans, with some areas being more affected than others, but still the increase is global.
The scientists, who report their findings in the latest issue of the journal Science, report that climate change has strengthened and shifted winds in the region over the last few decades. They say the stronger winds make life easier for the birds, at least for now, and even help them reproduce.The wandering albatross, whose 11-foot wingspan, the largest of any bird’s, enables it to soar for months over the cold ocean, feeds on fish, squid and other marine creatures that it scoops from the water with its hooked bill.
A naturalist E. Vernon Laux put it in an article about an albatross that albatross “comes to land for only one reason: to find a mate, lay an egg and raise another albatross. Once the egg is laid, both mom and dad spend time on the nest incubating it; the more they are away from the nest hunting for food, the greater the chances their chick will not survive”.
Henri Weimerskirch and colleagues at the Centred’ Etudes Biologiques de Chize in Villiers en Bois, France, conducted a study and collected the data on population of albatrosses on Windy Crozet Islands over the past few decades. To track the birds’ movements, the team of scientists fitted the wind riders, snow-coloured, with wingspans of living birds together with satellite transmitters.The researchers studied decades of data on the foraging trips, weight and breeding success of the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) of the Crozet Islands, outcrops claimed by France in the southern Indian Ocean where there are lots of albatrosses but virtually no people except researchers.
The researchers concluded that stronger and shifted wind patterns allow the birds to obtain the food they need in less time, which in turn allows them to spend less time away from their nests. Result: more albatrosses.
The researchers found that westerly winds in the Southern Ocean have increased, on average, by 15 percent over the past few decades. Both female and male flight speeds got a boost as a result, with females alone traveling about 311 miles per day in 1990, but about 435 miles per day as of 2010.Wandering albatrosses don’t start to reproduce until they are 8 or 9 years old and then produce only one egg at a time, roughly every three years. By some estimates, there are only about 25,000 breeding pairs left.
Easier flights for the birds have improved their breeding success, allowing them to grow larger. As it is, this species has the largest wingspan of any living bird. It’s possible that the weight gain is an adjustment to the speedier winds, allowing the birds to experience greater wing loading while in flight.
Research concluded that there was an increase in the wind speed with the increase in atmospheric pressure across the western Indian Ocean where albatrosses are found, said the reports. Along with this, there was a corresponding reaction of birds to the greater wind speed. They were found to have grown fatter by one kilogram on an average, flying faster as well as taking less time in hunting of food and having more babies.
Wandering Albatross are currently listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. According to PhysOrg, longline fishing operations and human-generated ocean debris have had a negative impact on albatross populations.
In addition to heightened wind speeds, the westerlies in the Southern Ocean are also now gradually moving poleward. All animals in the region, from birds to their prey, have likely been affected by the changes.
“Many albatrosses and petrels are using wind for their movements, either when they search for food during central place foraging movements, or for their migratory movements over the oceans, thus these changes should undoubtedly affect many other species,” Weimerskirch said. “They should affect the food web, by increasing current strength, turbidity and therefore production, but this aspect is not well known so far.”
Easier flights mean shorter foraging trips and fewer abandoned eggs. In fact, the percentage of eggs that produced live albatross chicks increased by 11 percent between 1970 and 2008. The birds have also put on weight, possibly to compensate for stronger wind patterns. According to ScienceNOW, the average weight of a Wandering Albatross has increased by over two pounds, or 10 to 12 percent of their body mass, in the past 20 years.
But the good times for albatrosses may not last long, say the researchers. If climate patterns play out as expected in a warming world, they say, winds will be so strong and storms so frequent by late in this century that conditions will “become unfavorable for dynamic soaring flights,” on which the birds rely.
Weimerskirch explained that models predict wind strength will continue to increase, and that the poleward shift will continue. By 2080, the westerly flow now centered around Crozet will be further to the south, taking away the bird’s easy ride. At present the birds are also under constant threat from longline tuna fisheries, which have indirectly killed many albatrosses and other animals.Although benefits have been realized due to strong blowing of the winds but the study warns uniformly that if earth keeps on warming and wind blows more rapidly, these benefits may be very momentary and short term.
This research highlights that there is a strong need for people studying climate change to consider factors beyond rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns. In marine systems, wind is a major component of the environment, and climate change-induced alterations in oceanic wind regimes and strength have already occurred and are predicted to increase.
All scientific researches and approaches must consider wind patterns as an important driver of the distribution and migration of seagoing birds and other species.