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Impacts on aquatic birds and mammals in the Arctic

Republished From: Encyclopedia of Earth

May 7, 2012, 4:27 pm

This is Section 8.5.6 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
Lead Authors:  Frederick J.Wrona,Terry D. Prowse, James D. Reist;  Contributing Authors: Richard Beamish, John J. Gibson, John Hobbie, Erik Jeppesen, Jackie King, Guenter Koeck, Atte Korhola, Lucie Lévesque, Robie Macdonald, Michael Power,Vladimir Skvortsov,Warwick Vincent;  Consulting Authors: Robert Clark, Brian Dempson, David Lean, Hannu Lehtonen, Sofia Perin, Richard Pienitz, Milla Rautio, John Smol, Ross Tallman, Alexander Zhulidov


Given the increasing understanding of the critical role of climate in driving the population dynamics of waterfowl and aquatic wildlife, it is very likely that progressive, rapid change in climate will trigger substantial fluctuations in endemic fauna and flora. Population- and community-level responses of aquatic birds and mammals will probably result from combinations of direct and indirect impacts. These include changes in winter severity; seasonal snow and ice distribution and depths; timing and peaks of lake, pond, and wetland productivity; predator–prey dynamics; parasite–host interactions; habitat quality and distribution; and fire frequency, intensity, and distribution.

As discussed in section 8.4.1, projections from the five ACIA-designated models suggest that coastal land areas (and associated estuarine and freshwater habitats) are likely to experience dramatic temperature increases and changes in their hydrologic regimes. Such changes are likely to produce significant alterations in the quantity and quality of existing coastal estuarine and delta habitats, thereby affecting associated communities of birds and aquatic mammals.

It is therefore probable that changes in freshwater and estuarine habitat will result in altered routes and timing of migration. Emigration of aquatic mammals and waterfowl is likely to extend northward as more temperate ecosystems and habitats develop at higher latitudes (section 7.3.5). Migration will possibly occur earlier in the spring with the onset of high temperatures, and later in the autumn if high temperatures persist. Breeding-ground suitability and access to food resources are likely to be the primary driving forces in changes in migration patterns. However, many species living in these areas are adapted to, even dependent on, extreme natural fluctuations in climate and associated impacts on water resources. Hence, their responses to such changes are likely to be species-specific and quite varied.

A number of direct and indirect effects are likely to occur in shallow arctic lakes and ponds that lack a thermocline. Summer maximum temperatures are likely to climb above physiological preferences or thresholds of algae, plankton, and benthic invertebrates, which would produce substantial shifts through time in diversity and/or abundance at these lower trophic levels. Such shifts will probably result in earlier or reduced seasonal peaks in abundance of key foods, thereby creating mismatches between resource availability and timing of breeding. This will possibly lead to a lowering of reproductive success in higher-level consumers such as waterfowl.

Changes in water regimes are very likely to dramatically alter the quantity and quality of aquatic and riparian habitat, leading to local changes in the distribution of birds and mammals, and at larger scales, are likely to affect overall habitat availability, carrying capacity, and reproductive success. Aquatic mammals and waterfowl are highly dependent on the availability and quality of aquatic habitats for successful breeding, and in the case of waterfowl, nesting. Northern species will possibly have diminished reproductive success as suitable habitat either shifts northward or declines in availability and access. Northward colonization of southern species will possibly result in competitive exclusion of "northern" species for habitat and resources. Many of the projected responses are likely to result from changes in temperature and precipitation. For example, Boyce and Miller[1] showed that water depths have a significant positive effect on the annual production of juvenile whooping cranes (Grus americana), and suggested that increased summer temperatures are likely to create drier conditions in whooping crane nesting marshes over the long term, decreasing production of young and slowing the annual population growth rate.

Many shorebirds (e.g., sandpipers, plovers, snipe, godwits, curlews) are also dependent on water levels and the persistence of shallow wetlands. For instance, most North American species of shorebirds breed in the Arctic, with ten species common to the outer Mackenzie Delta[2]. These species are dependent on invertebrate prey during reproduction, and hatchlings are highly dependent on mosquitoes and chironomids, the preferred foods of developing young. Any changes in timing and availability of food at staging sites in the Arctic, let alone the availability of wetland habitat, are likely to have detrimental effects on the success of hatchlings. Therefore, most species are very likely to be adversely affected by loss of shallow wetland habitat as ponded areas dry in response to rising temperatures, a potential decline in precipitation, and permafrost degradation. Conversely, thawing permafrost and precipitation increases are very likely to increase the occurrence and distribution of shallow wetlands, and probably the success of shorebirds in the Arctic.

Long-term survey data are available for a limited number of wetland-dependent migratory birds in Canada that demonstrate some of the possible effects of climate-related change. These data clearly indicate dramatic declines in the abundance of several waterfowl species (e.g., scoters – Melanitta spp., lesser scaup – Aythya affinis) with core breeding areas located in the northwestern boreal forest of Canada. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain these patterns, including changes in wetland systems (e.g., food resources for breeding birds or their offspring). It is difficult to identify causes of decline because changes have also occurred simultaneously in the wintering, migration, and breeding areas of each species; however, breeding-ground changes are the probable cause because indices of productivity have decreased during the past 20 years[3].

The dynamics and stability of aquatic mammal populations have also been linked to observed variability and extremes in hydrologic conditions. Thorpe[4] found that in the Peace-Athabasca Delta, Canada, years with observed spring ice-jam flooding (and associated reflooding of perched basins) had high success in local trapping of muskrats. A decade with low water levels in the delta resulted in dryer perched basins and fewer muskrats, followed by a decade of higher water levels and high muskrat harvesting. In this case, perched-basin water levels and the extent of emergent vegetation development seemed to be the controlling factors in muskrat occurrence and abundance. Independent traditional ecological knowledge studies of the area also provided corroborative evidence of this trend[5]. Hence, projected decreases in the frequency and intensity of ice-jam flooding under future climate scenarios would probably cause decreases in the re-flooding of perched basins, negatively affecting muskrat populations in years with low water levels.

It is also possible that projected climate change in the Arctic will produce an increased incidence of mortality from disease and/or parasites in bird and aquatic mammal populations. As temperatures rise, southern species of mammals and waterfowl are likely to shift northward. These species will probably carry with them new diseases and/or parasites to which northern species are not adapted.


Chapter 8: Freshwater Ecosystems and Fisheries
8.1. Introduction
8.2. Freshwater ecosystems in the Arctic
8.3. Historical changes in freshwater ecosystems
8.4. Climate change effects
        8.4.1. Broad-scale effects on freshwater systems
        8.4.2. Effects on hydro-ecology of contributing basins
        8.4.3. Effects on general hydro-ecology
        8.4.4. Changes in aquatic biota and ecosystem structure and function
8.5. Climate change effects on arctic fish, fisheries, and aquatic wildlife
        8.5.1. Information required to project responses of arctic fish
        8.5.2. Approaches to projecting climate change effects on arctic fish populations
        8.5.3. Climate change effects on arctic freshwater fish populations
        8.5.4. Effects of climate change on arctic anadromous fish
        8.5.5. Impacts on arctic freshwater and anadromous fisheries
        8.5.6. Impacts on aquatic birds and mammals
8.6. Ultraviolet radiation effects on freshwater ecosystems
8.7. Global change and contaminants
8.8. Key findings, science gaps, and recommendations



  1. ^ Boyce, M.S. and R.S. Miller, 1985. Ten-year periodicity in the whooping crane census. Auk, 102:658–660.
  2. ^ Gratto-Trevor, C.L., 1994. Potential effects of global climate change on shorebirds in the Mackenzie Delta lowlands. In: S.J. Cohen (ed.). Mackenzie Basin Impact Study (MBIS) Interim Report #2, pp. 360–371. Environment Canada.
    –Gratto-Trevor, C.L., 1997. Climate change: proposed effects on shorebird habitat, prey, and numbers in the outer Mackenzie Delta. In: S.J. Cohen (ed.). Mackenzie Basin Impact Study (MBIS) Final Report, pp. 205–210. Environment Canada.
  3. ^Afton, A.D. and M.G. Anderson, 2001. Declining scaup populations: a retrospective analysis of long-term population and harvest survey data. Journal of Wildlife Management, 65:781–796.
    –Austin, J.E., A.D. Afton, M.G. Anderson, R.G. Clark, C.M. Custer, J.S. Lawrence, J.B. Pollard and J.K. Ringleman, 2000. Declining scaup populations: issues, hypotheses, and research needs. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 28:254–263.
  4. ^ Thorpe, W., 1986. A Review of the Literature and Miscellaneous Other Parameters Relating to Water Levels in the Peace-Athabasca Delta Particularly with Respect to the Effect on Muskrat Numbers. Environment Canada.
  5. ^ Crozier, J., 1996. A Compilation of Archived Writings about Environmental Change in the Peace, Athabasca and Slave River Basins. Report No. 125. Northern River Basins Study, Edmonton.






Committee, I. (2012). Impacts on aquatic birds and mammals in the Arctic. Retrieved from


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