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Hawaiian Seabirds on Low-Lying Atoll Vulnerable to Sea-Level Rise

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The Hawaiian Islands’ largest atoll, French Frigate Shoals, is key to understanding how seabird-nesting habitat will change with predicted rising sea levels, according to a team of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) biologists.

The team, led by research wildlife biologist Michelle Reynolds of the USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, studied the population dynamics of eight seabird species on French Frigate Shoals, an isolated atoll of low-lying coral islands in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands about halfway between the main Hawaiian Islands and Midway Atoll in the mid-Pacific. These islands, which are part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the State of Hawai‘i. Papahānaumokuākea is a seasonal home to more than 14 million seabirds, making it the largest tropical seabird rookery in the world. Virtually all of the world’s populations of Laysan Albatross and Black-footed Albatross live there, as well as globally significant populations of Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Bonin Petrels, Tristram’s Storm-Petrels, and White Terns. The USGS research provides new information useful for wildlife management in the face of sea-level rise.

The White Tern is one of eight seabird species studied on Tern Island
Above: The White Tern is one of eight seabird species whose population density and susceptibility to sea-level rise were studied on French Frigate Shoals’ Tern Island by biologists with the USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center’s Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Climate Change Project. Photograph by C. Cornett, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. [larger version]

“It is troubling to think that these resilient seabirds, which have managed to endure and even thrive on this remote outpost despite the onslaught of storms and world war, could fall victim to the rising seas of climate change,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “These projections on the rate of shrinking useful habitat will help define the range of management options to help ensure the survival of these important species.”

The investigators studied bird populations on Tern Island, the largest island in French Frigate Shoals since it was expanded in World War II by the U.S. Navy, which created a 3,000-foot-long coral-sand airstrip there. Using data collected over 3 decades on the ground by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges, the investigators concluded that although Tern Island is now at carrying capacity for some shrub-nesting bird species, such as Spectacled Terns (also known as Gray-backed Terns), restoration of habitat and seawalls could help mitigate the effects of sea-level rise on other bird species. In the long run, they say, restoration of seabird colonies on higher-elevation islands may be a more enduring conservation solution.

French Frigate Shoals’ low elevation makes the atoll an important place to study sea-level rise. The eight islands, which lie, on average, only 2.2 meters above sea level, have lost landmass to erosion in recent decades. If sea levels rise 2 meters by 2100, as some studies have predicted, almost all the islands in the atoll except Tern Island will be submerged.

The Black Noddy shown with a chick
Above: The Black Noddy (with a chick) is another seabird species whose population density was studied on French Frigate Shoals' Tern Island by the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Climate Change Project. Photograph by Pete Leary, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. [larger version]

Using lidar (light detection and ranging)-derived elevation data, aerial imagery, and historical observations, the USGS investigators studied how various degrees of sea-level rise, from 0.5 meter to 2 meters, would affect bird populations. All of the scenarios show a decrease in the abundance of birds, except for Masked Boobies, which nest on bare ground, such as Tern Island’s runway. The team also looked at what might happen if the inactive runway were decommissioned and either planted or passively managed for vegetation. Study models that incorporated decommissioning the runway increased the area of potential habitat and slowed losses of shrub land cover due to sea-level rise for all but the 1.5-meter and 2-meter scenarios. 

“We were pleased to learn that seabirds have been doing so well at French Frigate Shoals, but if sea level rises much more, these birds may need help in the future,” said Jeff Hatfield, a research ecologist at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and lead author of an article on the team’s findings in Conservation Biology (http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01853.x).

Robyn Thorson, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region, agrees. “This area remains a critical, world-class habitat for seabirds, worthy of our efforts to protect it,” Thorson said. “What we learn now will make a difference in the future of these species.”

The authors say that their study demonstrates both the resilience and the vulnerability of Pacific seabird populations. Although bird species have recolonized Tern Island despite intense human disturbance that included 38 years of weekly air traffic, they face an uncertain future as a result of sea-level rise and associated habitat loss.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Establishment of Three New Marine National Monuments Assisted by Information from the USGS
March 2009

Related Web Sites
Population Dynamics of Hawaiian Seabird Colonies Vulnerable to Sea-Level Rise
Conservation Biology

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USGS Scientists Exploring Mars

Topographic Maps Help Curiosity Navigate Mars

Methane Seep off San Diego, California

Sea-Level Rise Accelerating on U.S. Atlantic Coast

Hawaiian Seabirds Vulnerable to Sea-Level Rise

Corals Damaged by Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Gulf Coast Vulnerable to Erosion During Category 1 Hurricanes

Sanctuary Exploration Center Opens in Santa Cruz, California

U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Project Holds Workshop

Biannual Meeting of the Monterey Bay Marine GIS User Group

Staff Coastal and Marine Geology Program Participates in Federal Food Drive

Publications Sea Floor Stress and Sediment Mobility Database

Sept. / Oct. 2012 Publications

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