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Accepted Paper:

The sea confounds us: tracing environmental change through seabirds  
Andrew Whitehouse (University of Aberdeen)

Short abstract:

This paper explores how seabirds reveal complex, weird and precipitous ecological changes at sea. Analysis of scientific research and the observations of birders reveals a strange matrix of human interpretations of and avian responses to ecological shifts, making them perceptible but always opaque.

Long abstract:

The sea is at the heart of environmental change in the Anthropocene. Sea level rise, surface temperature changes, shifting ocean currents, overexploitation, storms, pollution, and disease all profoundly affect marine environments, but these effects can be hard to discern and disentangle. This paper explores the ways in which seabirds reveal the complex, weird and precipitous ecological changes at sea. It does this through a discussion of both scientific research and the observations of birders, particularly in British waters. Birders who conduct seawatching, the practice of monitoring seabird movements from land, often notice changes in movements and distribution at early stages and this paper examines the ways they interpret these as indexical of wider ecological shifts before scientific research provides more concrete, though still partial, explanations.

Seabirds are unusual indexes of environmental change because on the one hand they are highly mobile and long-lived but on the other, they are restricted to dense colonies in specific places for breeding and are acutely vulnerable to extreme weather and disease outbreaks. This can lead to long periods when ecological shifts are concealed, but which are then followed by rapid or catastrophic effects on populations. These effects include losses from avian influenza, starvation or storms, and distributional and seasonal shifts linked to warming sea temperatures and consequent prey movements. Since seabirds have varied capacities to deal with different kinds of change, they reveal a strange matrix of responses and potential causes that render marine ecologies perceptible but always opaque.

Traditional Open Panel P071
  Session 1 Wednesday 17 July, 2024, -