Bar-Tailed Godwit

A new study claims that climate change could make much of the Arctic unsuitable for millions of migratory birds that travel north to breed each year.

The international study which was published in Global Change Biology says that suitable breeding conditions for Arctic shorebirds could collapse by 2070.

Hannah Wauchope, a research assistant at The University of Queensland School of Biological Sciences, explained, "This means that countries throughout the world will have fewer migratory birds reaching their shores."

Arctic breeding shorebirds undertake some of the longest migratory journeys in the animal kingdom, with many birds travelling more than 20,000 kilometres each year to escape the northern winter.

The bar-tailed godwit, for example, flies from Alaska to New Zealand in a single journey of 12,000 kilometres without stopping.

The study predicts that as the earth gets warmer, migratory birds will become increasingly restricted to small islands in the Arctic Ocean as they retreat north.

This could cause declines in particularly hard-hit regions and some birds could completely change their migratory paths to arrive closer to suitable habitat.

"Climate change is also opening up the Arctic to threats such as mining and tourism, and we must make sure we protect key places for all Arctic species, including these amazing migratory birds," Ms Wauchope added.

The University's Associate Professor Richard Fuller from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) said most bird populations followed well-defined migratory routes.

"This makes shorebirds an excellent group to investigate how climate change might impact breeding grounds and conservation actions that could address these impacts," Associate Professor Fuller said.

The researchers modeled the suitable climate breeding conditions of 24 Arctic shorebirds and projected them to 2070.

They also examined the impact on Arctic birds of the world’s last major warming event about 6000 to 8000 years ago.

"Climatically suitable breeding conditions could shift and contract over the next 70 years, with up to 83 per cent of Arctic bird species losing most of their currently suitable area," Ms Wauchope said.

"This far exceeds the effects of the last major warming event on Earth, but genetic evidence suggests that even then the birds struggled to deal with the warming."

The study also found that suitable climatic conditions are predicted to decline fastest in the areas with most species including western Alaska and eastern Russia where Arctic birds are already becoming vulnerable due to the “shrubification” of the tundra and predators such as red foxes moving north.

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