The impacts of climate change – including record heat and intense storms – are now hitting New Zealand’s wildlife. Humans are not the only species affected.
The southern summer’s storms have lashed not only people but also New Zealand’s wildlife, killing penguins and prions and damaging the habitats of countless other species.
On one island in the North Island’s Hauraki Gulf, an entire batch of little blue penguin chicks drowned in their burrows in the storm that hit in early January.
Sue Neureter has spent much of her life on and around the island and has never seen anything like it. Many of the penguins were nesting on a point that was inundated in the storm. All the gravel that protected the point they were on was washed down the beach, covering a blue mussel bed and leaving the clay banks exposed to further wind and rain.
Nesting variable oystercatchers also lost their chicks. Trees fell, and Sue now fears that the entire point will be washed away. She is surprised by the degree of damage the storm did on the island, as it’s covered in native forest, which should have given it the best chance possible of withstanding storm impacts.
But what Sue and others around the country are seeing is the reality of the changing climate. Thanks to us, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from about 280 parts per million at the start of the Industrial Revolution to around 410 ppm now. That means more heat is being trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, meaning more energy. And more energy means more intense and frequent storms.
Global average temperatures have risen 1°C since record-keeping began in 1909, and are likely on present trends to be at least 2°C warmer again by the end of the century – warmer than at any time since the start of human civilisation about 10,000 years ago. We’ve never lived in a world like this; our biology and our cultures have evolved to live in the world we’ve had up till now.
The same applies to other species. New Zealand has some of the rarest and most interesting species in the world, all perfectly adapted to the world they were in.
The arrival of humans changed that, through hunting, habitat destruction and the introduction of devastating predators like stoats and cats. New Zealand now has 900 species threatened with extinction, and another 2000 in danger of joining them. And now the changing climate is taking the threat to new levels.
The evidence that climate change is affecting our native wildlife is mounting. In the past year, we’ve seen kiwi in Northland dying of dehydration during droughts (they need the ground to be soft so they can get their beaks in to find insects, which is where they get most of their moisture from), dotterels on the West Coast and and at Ohiwa Harbour trying to move inland as the rising sea claims more of their traditional nesting grounds, and kokako chicks being washed out of their nests.
Volunteers at a wildlife rescue centre in Otago have been holding ice under the feet of over-heated yellow-eyed penguins
Myrtle rust, a disease that loves warm, wet conditions, has arrived, threatening our pohutukawa, rata and manuka, and in the Nelson district last summer there were so many wasps eating the honeydew from the beech forests that native birds were threatened with starvation.
Eels and other freshwater species are dying as warmer water and increased nutrients make toxic algal blooms more frequent, entire sand dunes and the plants and animals that lived on them were destroyed in the storm that hit the top of the South Island in early February, and in Dunedin, just 16 of 29 fertile royal albatross eggs have hatched, probably because of the effects of hot weather.
The deaths this summer of hundreds of fairy prions around Tasman and in Northland are likely to be linked to the fact that warm seas are affecting fish species, making it difficult for birds to find food.
Which brings us back to the penguins. As birds that nest on the shore and feed in the sea, they’re doubly vulnerable, to impacts on land and at sea. Volunteers at a wildlife rescue centre in Otago have been holding ice under the feet of over-heated yellow-eyed penguins, while bird rescue volunteers in the Hauraki Gulf are treating starving little blue penguins.
Keeping nature healthy
At least part of the problem for the little blues is likely to be caused by sediment from the land being washed into the Gulf during the big storms that keep on hitting us. Humans have removed most of the forests and wetlands that would have stopped this happening (and, in the north, want to destroy the mangrove forests that are the last line of defence), making it hard for penguins to fish because the water is too murky for them to see their prey.
The huge amount of carbon dioxide we are releasing into the atmosphere is also acidifying the ocean; it is already affecting shellfish, and will affect everything from plankton to blue whales.
We can help by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, urgently. We also need to do what we can to keep nature healthy, so it has the best chance of surviving and adapting. Pest control, weed control, extending native ecosystems so that species can move, and an end to habitat destruction and unsustainable farming and fishing practices are all critical.
Helping nature stay healthy will help us too, as our native forests are brilliant at taking the carbon dioxide that’s causing the problem out of the atmosphere and storing it, and forests, sand dunes, mangroves, shellfish beds and other ecosystems all help to absorb the impacts of storms and droughts.
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