Citizen Scientists Reveal Wildlife Changes as Sea Ice Melts (Op-Ed)

Seabird McKeon a biodiversity scientist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

As governments negotiate the best ways to reduce emissions & switch to renewable energy production, scientists are struggling to observe all the global changes taking place. Increasingly, citizen scientists are stepping in to monitor the shifts, a positive step in an uncertain path forward.

In particular, birders & whale watchers are documenting wildlife sightings & revealing shifts in animal movements in the planet's northern hinterlands. These patterns are key for understanding how melting sea ice is influencing species' ranges, & health, in the decades to come, as my co-authors & I discuss in a paper published recently in the journal Global Change Biology. 

p> Traveling the Northwest Passage

As Arctic sea ice melts & waterways open in the Northwest Passage, so too does the prospect of an Arctic transit for shipping & mineral exploitation. These are remote waters, yet the ships will have company: Marine birds & mammals are already starting to make the trip from one ocean basin to another — becoming what we call "interbasin taxa."  

Gray whales, for example, have been pushing their limits at the ice boundaries for a very long time. Human hunting extirpated gray whales from the North Atlantic hundreds of years ago, where they were separated from the Pacific population by sea ice boundaries. With the opening of the Arctic passages, Pacific gray whales might be starting to break through to reclaim territory in the Atlantic. In 2010, keen-eyed observers spotted the first gray whale seen in the Atlantic for hundreds of years.

View gallery

A Great shearwater (Ardenna gravis; lowest bird, with white collar), a species with a normal range i …

Enter the birders

Odd, individual animals that show up in unexpected places (like the gray whale) are referred to as "vagrants," & are the bread-and-butter of the competitive end of birding (yes, it's a thing). So it should come as no surprise that birders have been among the first to notice interbasin vagrants that might be using melting Arctic passages.  

In the late 1980s, increased numbers of small seabirds called Manx shearwaters started appearing in the Pacific Northwest. This is an Atlantic species. Shearwaters are long-range migrants, so it was at first conceivable that the vagrants had flown around the southern tip of South America, & up the West Coast before starting to colonize the North Pacific. But then gannets were sighted off the coast of northern Alaska, raising the possibility of seabirds moreover using the Arctic passages.  

The northern gannet is a spectacular white seabird with a 6.5-foot (2 meters) wingspan, & requires open water to fish. Normally found in the North Atlantic, at least one gannet set up shop in the Farallon islands off central California in 2012 & has been in the area ever since. Even population-level differences within bird species are discernible to the most hardcore birders, & Bruce Mactavish of Washburn University spotted Pacific usual eider among the wintering Atlantic eider in Newfoundland.

Connecting the dots

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A northern gannet (Morus bassanus), a species with a normal range in the North Atlantic, sighted on  …

In our paper, we identified more than 70 species that could potentially become interbasin taxa based upon their current range. Some, like the Atlantic gray whale , may wander like lost tourists, while others, like the Manx shearwater, may decide to move in. The first movements are likely to be rare & difficult to detect unless specifically targeted. And that is where the collective efforts of many people become crucial.

Many of the observations in our study were made by citizen scientists, motivated by a passion for wildlife & spending time outside, & are representative of the contributions that anyone can make toward our scientific understanding of global change. They follow three principles: Observe. Record. Share.

Citizen-science platforms such as iNaturalist, eBird & the National Phenology Network are allowing each of us a chance to record critical baseline data approximately our world. Perhaps it is when the flowers in your garden first bloom, or when you hear the first spring peeper. 

Our combined efforts will assist to reveal patterns, like that of interbasin taxa, at a pace that traditional science just can't keep up with. And with the climate changing at record pace, we need all hands on deck. 

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues & debates — & become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter & Google+. The views expressed are those of the author & do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Power To The People? Everyone Can Do Citizen Science (Op-Ed) Citizen Science Assists Coastal Ecosystem Studies Citizen Science Aims to Clean Up Pacific Plastics Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.Living NatureEnvironmentArctic sea ice

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