What the warming Arctic means for birds

The Arctic is one of the regions in the world where climate change is significant, yet severely understudied. We follow researchers in northern Alaska who are racing to understand how this changing environment is impacting the breeding and migration of Arctic birds.


The Arctic is one of the regions in the world where the impact of climate change is both amplified and understudied.

In our next story, we follow researchers in northern Alaska who are racing to understand how this changing environment is impacting the breeding and migration of Arctic birds.

Here's a look.



Oh, wow.

I've got several birds already.

Not much slips through Helen Chmura's net.

So close, little bird.

Today's catch is the Gambel's white-crowned sparrow.

You might have seen this in your backyard in the wintertime.

It's a really common backyard bird-feeder bird.

But in the summers, these birds fly north to raise their young here in extreme northern Alaska.

This bird is only about a month old.

You don't normally think of life being assembled that quickly.

[ Chuckles ] He was caught at about 10:00 a.m.

Chmura is a PhD student at the University of California -- Davis.

I'm gonna do a few basic measures of body size.

First, we're gonna do the skull, which is just from the back of the neck to the tip of the beak.

She spends her summers studying at Toolik Field Station in the Alaskan Arctic.

You can kind of actually just peer through the skin to actually see its internal organs.

She's part of a team that's trying to understand how climate change is impacting the breeding and migration of arctic birds.

There's a lot of research from bird populations in other parts of the world that show that, with climate change, birds aren't having their babies at the right time of year anymore.

But relatively little research has been done within the Arctic Circle, where the impacts of climate change are amplified.

The Arctic region is known to be one of the regions of the world that's warming more quickly and to a larger extent than many other places.

And this could possibly have a great impact on many wildlife species that live up here.

It's possible some species will be winners and some species are going to be losers.

The white-crowned sparrow could be among the lucky ones.

All right.

It's time to go.

They build their nests at the base of shrubs, and as the Arctic warms, the shrubs are moving farther north, overtaking the grassy tundra.

That means more habitat for the sparrows.

In fact, we think that our data suggest that there has been a range expansion, so more Gambel's white-crowned sparrows breeding further and further north than we've ever seen them before.

But there are many more unknowns.

Could extreme temperature fluctuations create conditions that are lethal to young birds?

Could seasonal shifts reduce the number of insects they rely on for food?

The questions are hard enough to answer for one species, and they're just a piece of the larger puzzle.

That's why dozens of Arctic researchers come to Toolik each year.

They're gathering the critical data to get a clearer picture of the warming Arctic.

We have been working now in this area since 1975, and only because we have been working here so long do we really see the effects of climate change -- whereas if we came in for two or three years and then left, we'd miss the story completely.

For some researchers, the story they're unraveling is about how this unique ecosystem is transforming, while others...


...like George Kling, are trying to figure out how these regional changes could have worldwide impacts.

Historically, the Arctic hasn't played a large role in global climate change.

However, the soils in the Arctic, that had been frozen for thousands of years, contain about twice as much carbon as there is now in the atmosphere.

As the Arctic warms, the frozen ground beneath the surface melts -- sometimes in dramatic fashion.

The soil on top just collapses down, and that collapse causes a landslide, and that landslide then moves a lot of carbon into lakes and streams and exposes it to the surface.

Kling and his team are tracking that carbon as it moves into lakes and streams.

That carbon is released back up to the atmosphere in surprisingly large amounts.

That carbon is very quickly mixed around the world in the atmosphere, and if it increases the CO2 concentrations, that will cause more warming.

More warming will cause more thaw of the frozen soils.

So there's a positive feedback.

And one of the real questions that scientists have is, how much will this acceleration of global warming be caused by the Arctic?

The Arctic is one of the world's last frontiers.

But in the battle to understand climate change, it's the front line.

And what these researchers find may provide a clearer view of the future.

I think people deserve to know 'What might it be like?'

And then they can make decisions on 'How do I prepare for the warmer climate that we're going to have in the future world?'