"Canary In The Coal Mine": Wetlands Birdlife Study Shows How Climate Change Alters Water Quality

CORVALLIS, OR, United States

New research shows that recent climate change is having profound effects on wetlands across the West of the United States – affecting birds that use these wetlands for breeding, migration and wintering.

According to a study published March 15 in the journal Scientific Reports, long-term trends towards higher temperatures and less precipitation have altered environmental water quality and reduced waterbird habitat, creating clear winners and losers in bird species and potentially threatening the integrity of the Pacific migratory flyway for many species. The study, which began in the mid-1990s, is the result of a research collaboration between scientists at Oregon State University, US Geological Survey, University of California, Merced; and the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA).

The group found significantly higher temperatures and lower amounts of precipitation in the region during at least the past 20 years. The result was less spring snowmelt flowing into Great Basin wetlands. The water arrived earlier and was present for a shorter period of time, reducing the amount of appropriate habitat at the right time for migrating and breeding waterbirds.

The researchers found significant associations between climate and bird abundances. With higher temperatures and less precipitation, significant changes bird abundance were observed annually in 11 of the 14 waterbird species studied across more than 50 years.

Study co-author John H. Matthews, Executive Director of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), said in a press-release on the AGWA website: “Migrating, breeding, developing and post-breeding birds need water, but they also need good quality water. This is one of the first studies globally to show that climate change is altering water quality. If shifts in climate can alter water quality for birds, then climate change can alter our water quality too. These bird populations are the canary in the coal mine for all of us.”