Hurricane Sandy: Climate Change & Birds

Common Tern Cam
Photo by Rhaghuram Rasmanujan

Photo by Rhaghuram Rasmanujan

Did Climate Change Cause the Storm?

2012 has also seen record temperatures, drought and extreme weather around the globe. Ocean temperature increases along the East Coast contributed to Sandy's fury. What we had was the largest Atlantic storm in recorded history, fed by unusually warm ocean waters (+5degF) and steered in a very unusual direction over Greenland after the largest Arctic sea ice melt in human history. Climate deniers are promoting doubt at a time when action is needed. 

Birds have already feeling the effects of climate change. As shown in Audubon's State of the Birds Report (2009) -- a report and based on 40 years of data from Audubon's Christmas Bird Count and other sources -- many species are moving their ranges on average a mile north every year.

Read more about Climate Change and Hurricanes in Audubon magazine: "What Caused Hurricane 'Frankenstorm' Sandy? (Was it Climate Change?)" by Julie Leibach on the Perch, Audubon Magazine's blog. 


How Were Birds Affected by the Storm?

Many of Audubon's Important Bird Areas, including New York's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and rich areas vital to birds in New Jersey and Connecticut, are just as important to the people who live in these areas. Tree damage reduces our property values, the carbon sink they provide, and reduces our access to the nature so vital to our quality of life as outlined by Richard Louv, winner of the Audubon Medal.

Birds were lucky that Sandy did not occur during nesting season but during the later part of fall migration.  Some birds get blown way off course and may find themselves far out of their range and without the food and foraging habitat they need to survive. Some are physically injured or killed during a storm. But most in good condition probably survive. Some of the birds that carry satellite transmitters have been shown to fly around big hurricanes, others may fly through the storms, but keep in mind that birds carrying satellite transmitters are fairly large. The impact on songbirds and their habitat may be entirely different.

While reports of injured or dead birds haven't come in yet, they likely will soon. They tend to show up days after a storm as they use up their fat stores trying to return to the ocean. People should keep an eye out for stranded birds in parking lots and small bodies of water and take them to the closest rehabilitation center.

Read more about Hurricane Sandy and birds here: 

"How Hurricane Sandy Affected Birds, and How They'll Fare Now." by Alisa Opar on The Perch, Audubon Magazine's blog. 


Audubon's Work to Prevent Future Disasters

Audubon's scientists are proactively addressing what can be done to help protect habitats that we share with birds and other wildlife. Chief Scientist Dr. Gary Langham began mapping the responses of birds to climate change five years ago. "How bird ranges change with climate is key for policy makers and land managers alike," Langham says. "We need the best information possible on how birds will respond, so land managers and conservation groups and others to look at the landscape and understand where their conservation investments would be most wisely spent." Langham notes that this is more than a projection: "Climate change is already pushing species globally poleward and higher in elevation. In California alone, directional changes in climate during the 20th century were substantial."

Audubon has been a leader in the restoration of Long Island Sound and Constitution Marsh, a jewel on the Hudson River revived from a superfund site. We can work together to rebuild barrier islands and wetlands that provide healthy benefits to people and birds in the mid-Atlantic, just as we did in advocating for the passage of the RESTORE Act to protect the Gulf Coast.

One of the greatest conservation decisions from storms like Sandy is how people react to shape the future. There will be more storms and there will be bigger storms.  How people respond to the storm can do far more damage than the storm itself, as happened on the Gulf coast during the BP oil spill clean up. Dredging and beach replenishment projects, hardened structures (jetties, terminal groins, etc.), and other coastal engineering projects will have a negative impact on coastal birds. There may be a push to harden the shore in many areas affected by the storm. Birds can survive these storms, but they can't persist if the habitat they depend on is permanently lost.

Learn more about how Audubon Centers were affected by the storm and how you can help people, birds, and habitat in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.