"Now's the time to recognize the strong connections between sustainable economic development, a healthy environment, and successful species conservation." - Ginette Hemley, VP of Species Conservation at WWF.
Human induced climate change is recognized as a fundamental driver of biological processes and patterns. Climate change is known to have caused shifts in geographic ranges of many plants and animals, and future climate change is expected to result in even greater redistributions of species. The geographic range of a species is the geographical area within which that species can be found (Suzuki, D.). Climate change occurs when weather patterns are altered over a long period of time (Suzuki, D.). The main contributor to climate change is human activity such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and intensive agriculture. All of these activities have led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. This increase in greenhouse gases has lead to a warming of the atmospheric temperature. As a result, we have increased air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea levels. We are seeing extreme weather events across the globe such as storm surges, hurricanes, and extreme tides.
Scientists and conservationists have long been concerned about how climate change may increase population declines already occurring for shorebirds such as the piping plover, which is found in PEI National Parks. The main threat to piping plover and other shorebirds is loss of habitat. Habitat is defined as a particular location with specific characteristics, including an appropriate climate and available food and shelter, where wildlife may live (Cairns and Mclaren, 1980). Migrating birds like the piping plover need several habitats. These birds breed in one habitat during the summer, winter in another, and cross a number of other habitats as they migrate (Gailbraith, DesRoches, Brown, and Reed, 2014). The piping plover spend much of their time in wetland habitats. Climate change has been shown to have an effect on the habitats of piping plover.
The piping plover is a short stocky shorebird that has physical adaptations which help them survive in open habitats. Their pale brown coloration resembling dry sand make them less noticeable to predators. Piping plovers migrate from their northern range in the summer to the south in the winter months, migrating to the Gulf of Mexico, the Southern Atlantic coast of the United States and the Caribbean. They begin migrating north in the middle of March. Piping plovers return to PEI in mid-April to nest on sandy beaches where they use shells and rocks to hide their eggs (Parks Canada Agency, 2016). The Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada has listed them as an endangered species since 1985 (COSEWIC, 2013). Piping plovers are coastal dependent species in both summer and winter. They breed on Canadian Atlantic beaches such as Cavendish Beach on PEI. Piping plovers feed on small crustaceans, marine worms, and insects (Cairns and McLaren, 1980). Although the piping plover is largely affected by habitat loss caused mainly by human activities such as coastal development and pedestrian traffic on beaches, there is an increasing concern over the impacts climate change will have on piping plovers (COSEWIC, 2013). Habitat loss due to climate change is expected to escalate with increased global warming. According to Galbraith et al. (2014) greenhouse gases are expected to double by the middle of the next century.
How climate change is effecting piping plovers
Because piping plovers are migratory they have a limited ability to respond to environmental changes.
Inherent risks to Piping Plover include changes in wind pattern, rising sea levels, and changes in average temperatures. Their lengthy migrations may be vulnerable to changes in wind patterns. The coastal stopover sites they depend on are vulnerable to rising sea levels, and the timing of food availability, such as the emergence of invertebrates is vulnerable to changes in average temperature.
As a result of climate change there will be a loss of coastal habitats due to rising sea levels. The result will be a major loss of wintering habitats for piping plovers. Rising sea levels is expected to outpace the plover ability to migrate more inland. Because the majority of people live near the coast it has become an urbanized area. While the coast is lost to rising sea levels, piping plovers and other shorebird habitats won’t be able to migrate inland due to the urbanization of many coastal areas (Seavey, 2010). Coastal land loss will cause extinction of many coastal species including the piping plover. As an island with a highly erodible sandstone bedrock, an indented sandy shoreline with many estuaries and marches, and the ongoing submergence of its coast, PEI had been identified as one of the area’s most vulnerable to sea level rise in Canada (Canada, 2016). The number of shorebirds currently listed as endangered may quickly become listed as extinct if global warming isn’t reduced. Melting ice and increasing temperatures are expected to cause sea levels to rise up to two meters in some areas over the next 100 years (Seavey, 2010).
The increased frequency and severity of storms such as hurricanes and storm surges will cause piping plovers to be affected during their migration periods as well as their breeding season. These weather events will cause coastal flooding in critical habitats of the piping plover (Seavey, 2010). The survival of the piping plover depends on critical stopping and refueling points along the migration path. The birds make several feeding stops at key areas along the way to build reserves that will be needed for the final leg of migration and production (Gailbraith et al. 2014). Each of these sites is an important link in the chain. Therefore, it is necessary for each link to be protected, since destroying even one of these links could mean disaster for the birds. Because these birds migrate in flocks there is increased potential for higher mortality rates if the feeding stops are destroyed by weather events. Storm surges during the breeding season can cause water levels to raise above the normal average hide tide marks on the beach. The plovers often place their nest just above this high tide mark. If a storm surge causes water levels to rise above the high tide mark there is a greater risk of the nest and eggs being swept away or damaged by the water. This increase in flooding of nests will also cause greater levels of adult nest abandonment and bird mortality of eggs and chicks (Seavey, 2010).
Increases in atmosphere concentrations of greenhouse gases lead to higher temperatures. This will lead to drier overall conditions which will likely reduce food availability for piping plover during breeding seasons. Galbraith et al. (2014) concluded that as a result of drier conditions wetland breeding habitat will decline, and higher temperatures resulting from climate change will cause interior grassland regions to become hotter. This will adversely impact the seasonally or permanently flooded wetlands on migration stop overs. Drought damages wetland habitats plovers rely on and affects the food timing for feeding during migration. Insects and other food sources life cycle timing and active seasons may adapt to climate change better than the piping plover. This will cause insects to be out earlier in the season and disappear earlier then they normally would. Piping plovers may arrive after or before these insects and other food sources are available causing them to have to look for alternative food sources, which may be difficult or impossible.