Warming Arctic could have a dramatic impact on shorebirds

New research shows that some migratory birds may be severely affected by climate change.

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A turnstone on a patch on snow in Zackenberg, Greenland.

Climate change could affect the migrations of millions of Arctic breeding shorebirds, according to a new Global Change Biology study.

As global warming impacts polar regions biologists believe the Arctic could become unsuitable for some species travelling north for the winter.

Researchers from the University of Queensland studied breeding conditions of 24 shorebirds and used climate models to forecast what their habitats may be like in 2070. 

“We predict that 66–86 per cent of species will have lost more than half of their current breeding area, and at least five species will have basically none left,” said co-author Hannah Wauchope.

With the Arctic experiencing a rate of global warming that is twice the global average, species like the bar-tailed godwit – which flies 12,000km without landing – may have to settle for small islands in the Arctic Ocean.

This is partly because the Arctic is becoming more accessible to humans, meaning resource extraction and the tourism industry are likely to increase.

“This will bring the potential for habitat destruction and disturbance to breeding shorebirds,” said Wauchope. “It’s a challenge to manage development in a way that minimises negative impacts on biodiversity.”

While habitat loss is expected to be most severe in Alaska and Russia – affecting European, African, Asian and Australasian migratory routes – Wauchope speculates that climate change will have less of an impact on subarctic and temperate breeding shorebirds.

She explained that high Arctic breeders, such as the ruddy turnstone, sanderling and red knot, will be hardest hit because there's nowhere further north for them to go.

Read more news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine

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