Piping Plover and climate change

"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.

Help Reduce Climate Change

We cannot mitigate the harmful effects of climate change if we ignore our energy systems, and changes to those systems must be reflected in the actions we take to mitigate climate change.

Prince Edward Island is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. With the help of islanders, the provincial government is developing new strategies that will protect the environment (Canada. Department of the Environment, 2016).

Proposed Transportation Strategies

  • Promoting energy conservation among island drivers by providing driving tips to improve fuel efficiency in the PEI Driver’s Handbook.
  • Increase incentives for electric cars to reduce transportation related emissions.
  • Develop and implement an emissions testing program for all gas powered vehicles to ensure vehicle emission targets are met.
  • Encourage active transportation among populations. Driving less reduces GHGs, and can also increase the health and mobility of the population.

The burning of fossil fuels is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. Although PEI produces the smallest amount of greenhouse gas emissions of all the provinces at 0.3% the province is still heavily dependant on fossil fuel burning vehicles for transportation (Climate Change and Tourism, 2016). The provincial government is invested in protecting our environment by proposing strategies that individuals can implement without fearing negative impacts.

Building and Facilities Strategies

  • Programs and initiatives offered through the PEI Office of Energy Efficiency that help homeowners and business owners use less energy. Switch to high efficiency heat pumps, electric heat, and wood heat form oil heat.
  • Promote energy efficiency measures such as switching to energy efficient lighting and appliances.
  • Reduce air leakage around windows and doors, and improve insulation in walls and attics.
  • Install high efficiency furnaces in homes and businesses.
  • Heating government facilities with biomass (wood) systems, including schools, hospitals, etc.
Energy efficient appliances often have symbols printed on them.

Use Renewable Energy Sources.

Renewable energy sources include wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and biomass. Those energy sources provide substantial benefits for our climate, our health, and our economy. Renewable energy sources burn little to no fossil fuels once installed and functional causing an overall decrease in greenhouse gas emissions once operational. PEI's government is looking to Increase the generation of renewable electricity to 25 per cent of PEI’s electricity supply (Canada, Department of Environment, 2016). The island has developed wind farms to generate electricity more sustainably and to reduce electricity imports.

Food and Farming

Purchasing local foo reduces the number of “food miles” which means less greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The average meal travels 1200km from farm to plate (Canada, 2016). The provincial government has looked at strategies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in the islands largest industry of agriculture. Some of the proposed strategies include:

Cropland management such as:

  • considerations on how the soil is used and the way it is farmed.
  • Reducing emissions by using nitrogen fertilizer in a more sustainable way.
  • Reduce tillage, use cover crops, improve manure storage.

Potential Challenges

Proposing strategies to help reduce climate change is the first step required to reduce carbon emissions on Prince Edward Island. Education is an essential element of the global response to climate change. Living on a small island you would think it is easy to reach all members of the population to raise awareness of the effects of climate change and global warming. However, there are segments of the population who still don’t believe climate change is a threat to their immediate future. Many see it as a long-term problem and will simply decide that there is plenty of time to “look into” the issue in the future. Living on an island presents unique challenges for the delivery and supply of goods. Goods not produced locally have to be transported by truck or flown in from other provinces or countries. Transportation is a major contributor to rising greenhouse gases. The fuel burned to transport the food you may find on your dining room table most likely came from another country.

On a small island such as PEI, coastal erosion and flooding are dramatic and immediate. Tourism is one of the main industries on PEI. Rising sea levels because of climate change will lead to losses of coastal land and infrastructure and will therefore have more financial implications.

Agriculture is one of the islands main industries. Loss of crops due to rising temperatures and less rain will be a financial burden on farmers. In addition, farmers face a serious issue with depleting soil nutrients. Every year farmers are faced with more resilient weeds and pests. Farmers continue to depend on chemical fertilizers and sprays to protect their crops. The use of these chemicals has an effect on climate change.

While climate change directly impacts our island in a negative way it is still difficult for some to see it as problem because its effects will only be seen over a long period of time. If people fail to see it's impacts directly on their lives they won't be able to see it's impacts on a small shorebird such as the piping plover that is rarely seen. The piping plover will quickly become extinct if nothing is done.

Consider the Following Tips While in Piping Plover Habitat.

While helping reduce climate change may help reduce its impacts on piping plovers it's also important to minimize your impacts on this endangered species while you are within their habitat. The following tips can also help reduce the chances of this species from going extinct.

Looking Ahead

Conservation is not just important for wildlife, but for all living things. It is necessary to prevent floods, fires, drought and rising sea levels. Protecting habitats and natural areas such as the ecosystems of the migrating piping plover will prevent threatened and endangered species from becoming extinct. As humans we fail to understand our interdependence with nature. It is important for this generation as well as future generations to understand that all living things exist in, and as ecosystems. Climate change and global warming have impacted all aspects of our lives both directly and indirectly. In order to save the piping plover, conservation should focus on species habitat, ecosystems, and effects of climate change on these migrating birds. Developing an education and outreach campaign focused on behavior change is necessary to reduce emission levels. Capturing our energy efficiencies is considered to be the least costly, most reliable and cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

About the Team

This report was written by Emily VanIderstine, Kate Smith, and Xianyu Wang as a final project for English 381: Professional Writing.


Cairns, W, E., MacLaren, I, A. (1980). Status of the Piping Plover on the East Coast of North America. 34(2) 206-208. Retrieved from https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/ journals/nab/v034n02/ p00206-p00208.pdf

Canada. Department of the Environment. (2016). Prince Edward Island and Climate Change. A Strategy for Reducing the Impacts of Global Warming. Charlottetown https://www.princeedwardisland.ca/sites/ default/files/publications prince_edward_island_and_climate_ change.pdf

Canada. Government of Prince Edward Island. (2016). Prince Edward Island Climate Change Mitigation Recommendations Document. Retrieved Dec 2, 2016 from https://www.princeedwardisland.ca/en/service/climate-change-mitigation-strategy-public-consultation

Climate Change and Island Tourism. (2016). Retrieved from https:// www.princeedwardisland.ca/en/information/communities-land- and-environment/climate-change-and-island-tourism

COSEWIC. 2013. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Piping Plover circumcinctus subspecies (Charadrius melodus circumcinctus) and the melodus subspecies (Charadrius melodus melodus) in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.Ottawa. xiv + 39 pp. ( www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/default_e.cfm).

Environment Canada. 2012. Recovery Strategy for the Piping Plover (Charadruis melodus melodus) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Environment Canada, Ottawa. V + 29 pp.

Galbraith, H., DesRoches, D.W., Brown, S., Reed, J.M. (214). Predicting Vulnerabilities of North American Shorebirds to Climate Change, 1-19. Retrieved November 30, 2016 from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/ie=10.1371/journal.pone.0108899

Parks Canada Agency. 2016. Multi-species Action Plan for Prince Edward Island National Park. Species at Risk Act Action Plan Series. Parks Canada Agency, Ottawa. V + 17 pp.

Seavey, J.R., et al. Effect of sea-level rise on piping plover (Charadrius melodus) breeding habitat. Biol. Conserv. (2010),doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.09.017

Suzuki, D. What is Climate Change? In David Suzuki Foundation. Retrieved December 1, 2016 from http://www.davidsuzuki.org/ issues/climate-change/science/climate-change-basics/ climate-change-101-1 ttp://apesportal.eva.mpg.de/status/topic/status/ geographic_range

Learn More About How Global Warming is Effecting Animals



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