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What climate change looks like for North-East Atlantic seabirds 

Right now, the climate crisis is devastating species across the globe, and several studies show that seabirds are particularly vulnerable to its impacts – on top of all the other threats they face during their lifetime.

Seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere that feed on fish are the most impacted by climate change – coupled with the impact of overfishing, the reproductive success of these seabirds is already in decline. In the United Kingdom alone, 14 seabird species are at risk of decline or already in decline due to climate change (e.g., rising temperatures and severe weather events such as storms and floods).  These include the iconic Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica), which is predicted to lose up to 90% of its population across Britain and Ireland by 2050 should things continue down this path.  

BirdLife has contributed to a new publication, led by the Zoological Society of London and the University of Cambridge which proposes conservation guidance to help save 47 seabird species from climate change vulnerability in the North-East Atlantic, assessing specific needs and proposing concrete actions to preserve them.  

Led author Henry Häkkinen pinpoints that: “Crucially different species and areas will face different threats and require different responses, and our assessment highlights where key threats may occur and what conservation actions are likely to be effective.

For example, it was found that many species, such as Razorbills (Alca torda), guillemots, and Black-legged Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) are highly threatened by nest destruction due to increases in rain and storms or changes in vegetation at breeding sites. For these types of threats, local action by conservationists could be very effective at preventing or mitigating these impacts.  

On the other hand, species such as Manx Shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus), Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea), skuas, and puffins could face increased local pray shortages during the breeding season or suffer high mortality rates during the winter due to more frequent, and more extreme weather. These are very difficult to manage on a local level and require broader conservation efforts, either to protect key marine and terrestrial habitats or to target other threats to alleviate some of the pressure on seabird species. 

There are different patterns according to seabird families, but overall, the scenario is doom and gloom for almost all species. 

For some species, such as King Eiders (Somateria spectabilis), Ivory Gulls (Pagophila eburnea), Sabine’s Gulls (Xema sabini), Roseate Terns (Sterna dougallii), Cory’s Shearwaters (Calonectris borealis), and Band-rumped Storm Petrels (Hydrobates castro), 100% of their breeding sites will become less suitable due to climate change. 

Moreover, the breeding areas of many other species will no longer be suitable:  

  • 94% for Little Auks (Alle alle)  
  • 95% for Long-tailed Jaegers (Stercorarius longicaudus)  
  • 96% for Arctic Loons (Gavia arctica) and Common Loons (Gavia immer)  
  • 97% for Caspian Gulls (Larus cachinnans) and Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia
  • 98% for Red-necked Grebes (Podiceps grisegena).  

The only species which shows almost no change in its breeding range is the Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) (3%) 

The BirdLife Europe & Central Asia Marine team concludes that: “This document is a clear proof that the threat exerted by climate change will only exacerbate in the next decades and that many seabird species – as well as other species, habitats and humans – will be greatly impacted if we don’t act immediately” 

Image Credits: King Eider / Somateria spectabilis by Yves Adams

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Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.