In The Stomach Of A Seabird, A Glimpse Of An Ocean Heating Up
On a rare sunny morning in the northern Pacific Ocean, biologist Douglas Causey takes to the sea to conduct his research — binoculars in one hand, and a shotgun in the other.
As he bounces around in his boat, Causey, a researcher at the University of Alaska, has got an eye out for the little dots on the water in the distance: seabirds. They spend 80 percent of their lives on the open ocean, which makes them especially sensitive to changes in the environment. By the time they fly back to their nests at the western tip of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, Causey is dying to know what those birds have been up to.
When he spots a pelagic cormorant, he lifts his gun and takes aim. Two shots ring out, the bird falls from the sky and Causey moves in to collect the body.
Most scientists don't kill their samples, but Causey, who has a permit, says it's necessary for his team to find out how seabirds are adapting to global warming. They're at the top of the food chain — so any changes in the environment will show up in their diet. Different parts of the bird contain atomic signatures of what it ate and when, a bit like a food diary.
By looking at the bird's blood cells, he says can actually tell what it was eating a few weeks back. Beyond that, researchers can see how much herring this bird ate, as opposed to crab or shrimp. That can indicate what's actually available in the ocean — and how it's changing as the ocean warms.
Compared to historical records, Causey says he's finding major shifts in diet. He's also finding evidence that seabirds are ingesting plastic.
"I ask why — why are things like this," he says. "We're in a state where we don't know much about most things."
And this is partly because Alaska is so vast and remote. This part of the Aleutian Islands is closer to Russia than the rest of the United States. But research assistant Ashley Stanek says it's easier to test one bird than the entire ocean.
"You can't necessarily measure every resource available to them if you don't know even where they're going," says Stanek.
Those resources will shift as Alaska continues to heat up. It's happening twice as fast in the state as the rest of the nation, on average — around 2 degrees over the last half-century. But it's not a steady climb.
"It's somewhat like the stock market," says John Walsh, the chief scientist for the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks. "When good times are here, the overall trend is upwards. But as you go through the weeks and the months, there are ups and down along the way."
One of those ups is a large blob of superheated water that appeared in the northern Pacific Ocean two years ago. It has raised temperatures by up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
"If you look at the projections of what the world should look like in 50 or 100 years, the oceans are warmer — especially the Pacific," Walsh says. "And what we're seeing now could be typical of a warmer climate. So in that sense, this could be a preview."
Seabirds are not in crisis mode — at least, not in the Aleutians. Their population has been shrinking for years. What's changed is that researchers like Causey aren't the only ones paying attention.
"The U.S. and the world has suddenly woken up to the fact that the Arctic is changing faster than anywhere else on Earth."
President Obama is heading to Alaska on Monday, with plans to talk about climate change and its effect on life around the country. During the visit, Obama will be speaking at a conference on global climate change that goes by the acronym GLACIER.
And Douglas Causey will be there in the audience, listening closely to what the president has to say.
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