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Fluctuations in circumpolar seabird populations linked to climate oscillations


David B. Irons, tel. +1 907 786 3376, fax +1 907 786 3641, e-mail:


We found that synchronous fluctuations of two congeneric seabird species across the entire Arctic and sub-Arctic regions were associated with changes in sea surface temperatures (SST) that were linked to two climate shifts, in 1977 and again in 1989. As the SST changes linked to climate shifts were congruent at the scale of ocean basins, fluctuations of these species occurred similarly at continental or basin scale. Changes in colony sizes were examined for a decade following climate shifts. The magnitude of the SST shift was more important than its direction in determining the subsequent rate of population change. Seabirds declined when the SST shift was large and increased when the shift was small, although the effect differed between the Arctic-breeding species and the more temperate-breeding congener. The Arctic species, Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia) increased most rapidly when SST warmed slightly, while the temperate species, Common Murre (Uria aalge) showed most rapid increase with moderate cooling. Both showed negative trends with large temperature shifts in either direction. This pattern was replicated during both climate oscillations. Negative population trends in seabirds presumably indicate the alteration of underlying food webs. Hence, similar widespread fluctuations in response to climate shifts are likely for other ecosystem components (marine mammals, fish, and invertebrates).