An assessment of climate change vulnerability for Important Bird Areas in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Arc
Recently available downscaled ocean climate models for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Arc offer the opportunity to assess climate vulnerability for upper trophic level consumers such as marine birds. We analyzed seasonal and annual spatial projections from three climate models for two physical climate variables (seawater temperature and sea ice) and three forage variables (large copepods, euphausiids, and benthic infauna), comparing projected conditions from a recent time period (2003–2012) to a future time period (2030–2039). We focused the analyses on core areas within globally significant Important Bird Areas, and developed indices of the magnitude of projected change and vulnerability agreement among models. All three climate models indicated a high degree of change for seawater temperature warming (highest in the central and eastern Aleutian Islands) and ice loss (most significant in the eastern Bering Sea) across scales, and we found those changes to be significant for every species and virtually every core area assessed. There was low model agreement for the forage variables; while the majority of core areas were identified as climate vulnerable by one or more models (72% for large copepods, 73% for euphausiids, and 94% for benthic infauna), very few were agreed upon by all three models (only 6% of euphausiid-forager core areas). Based on the magnitude-agreement score, euphausiid biomass decline affected core areas for fulmars, gulls, and auklets, especially along the outer shelf and Aleutian Islands. Benthic biomass decline affected eiders along the inner shelf, and large copepod decline was significant for storm-petrels and auklets in the western Aleutians. Overall, 12% of core areas indicated climate vulnerability for all variables assessed. Modeling and interpreting biological parameters to project future dynamics remains complex; the strong signal for projected physical changes raised concerns about lagged responses such as distribution shifts, breeding failures, mortality events, and population declines.
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