Standort: / Meldung: "Puffins, Underwear, and Climate Change in Iceland"

Johnny Bliss

Disorderly artist, journalist, and late night moderator, with a fetish for microphone-based hooliganism.

25. 10. 2010 - 11:12

Puffins, Underwear, and Climate Change in Iceland

Small signs that something is amiss.

October 10th, 2010 marked the so-called "Global Day of Doing", an international day of raising climate change awareness, with thousands of coordinated events taking place simultaneously in cities around the world.

At that time, I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, where "coordinated event" meant roughly 50-100 young people marching on the streets in their underwear and shouting (in English) "Keep the Ice in Iceland!"

I guess their point was, if you could get away with marching semi-naked in Iceland, then global warming really must be happening.

Climate Pants Reykjavik

Johnny Bliss, 2010

Blurry Underwear March Reykjavik

Johnny Bliss, 2010

It's true that it was unseasonably warm, but I couldn't help but think that this sort of event was extremely transitory and as soon as people put their clothes back on, it would probably be forgotten.

* - No offense intended to the organizers of 1010 Global, who certainly have achieved something impressive on a larger scale, which I don't at all mean to discount.

As much as I love a good opportunity to take off my trousers in public, I didn't really see this as having any particular effect on society at large.*

Johnny Pants Reykjavik

Johnny Bliss, 2010

All-Too-Aware of Global Warming.

* - resulting in the entire human community vacating overnight.

Meanwhile, not too far from Reykjavik, there are some small islands called the Westmann Islands (or: Vestmannaeyjar). Infamous for a 1973 volcano which erupted after thousands of years of being dormant*, these islands are also known for being very rich in marine life, and especially in puffins.

I unfortunately only got to meet two lonely and bedraggled puffins on my short visit to Vestmannaeyjar, which is of itself unremarkable. Traditionally, they only come during the summertime to nest and breed, and then they leave again. Until now, these islands have been the largest puffin breeding colony in the world, with a good 700,000 couples nesting every year.

Westmann Islands Landscape-1

Johnny Bliss, 2010

It's sort of sad to come to the Westmann Islands in the autumn, because puffins are all but worshipped here, but you can't find any living ones outside, save for the odd injured bird who is unable to leave.

As you walk around in the small town on the island of Heimay, you can't help but notice that just about every sign post, restaurant, comic strip, cereal box, and window sill is decorated with images of puffins.

Puffin Sign-2, Westmann Islands

Johnny Bliss, 2010

Westmann Islands Puffin Branding

Johnny Bliss, 2010

Puffin Curtains, Westmann Islands

Johnny Bliss, 2010

Puffin Pillow, Westmann Islands

Johnny Bliss, 2010

Identity Crisis

Unfortunately, in the years to come, puffins on these islands may become as rare as the elves and trolls of Icelandic sagas. I went to the local natural museum and aquarium, and spoke with Margrit Magnusdottir, who told me that in the last three years alone, the breeding colonies had already been devastated.

"Two years ago there were 1,600 [breeding pairs] and then we were worried because that was a low number. Really we did not start counting until we had the problem. Last year [the number] was 300, and this year there were only ten pufflings."

10! But what is going on?

"Some people say it is the higher temperature, and the mackerel came into our seas, they are eating the same food as the pufflings eat."

For more actual data, Margrit pointed me to the South Iceland Nature Centre, where I spoke in person with the director, Pall Marvin Jónsson.

Director, Westmann Islands Nature Centre

Johnny Bliss, 2010

First off, what's with these islands and puffins? Why are they so important here?

"[They have] been very important, especially in the old days, to sustain life on the islands, because islanders here only could fish, and then hunt for birds and eggs. We couldn't go to the shop and shop for a hamburger, we just had to eat what we had around us..."

So the puffins come here to breed. But lately there seems to be a population crisis. What is going on?

Real-life Puffin, Westmann Islands-2

Johnny Bliss, 2010

"The colonies here have been doing very badly. Most evidence is that the main prey of the puffin is the sand eel, a small fish that burrows into the sand. This prey has disappeared almost entirely from this area, so the puffin has to go far away from the islands to fetch food to feed the chicks, and this is difficult for the adult bird."

OK. So why has this happened to the sand eel?

"The sea has been warming up a lot here... Fish stocks in general have a temperature optimum. This fish could be going further north because of the higher temperature in this area.

Another possibility is the mackerel, which is not a big fish but it's a very fast predator, and it is in very large numbers around here. It was much [farther south] but now it is coming up here, and this predator could be eating up in competition with the puffin."

Realistically what kind of future are we looking at?

"Well, it's kind of a ... it doesn't have to be a bad thing, changes in the environment, because we have new species coming, and this has been happening since before we started to drive cars and pollute the environment. [There have been] changes in the environment always, it is something we cannot fight against. It's bad if we lose the population of puffin from here - because we say it's bad. It could be good for another area further up north. And we would probably get more species coming here instead, species that need higher temperatures, invaders from the mediterranean and southern areas. We will probably see a lot of change in species composition around this area, but is it bad? I'm not sure."

How will it affect the town's image if we lose the puffins?

"Well, if we get the tuna fish in here because of warming of the sea, we could change the logos to tuna. (laugh) That would be the first year in Iceland to have tuna as a symbol."

Future Branding, Westmann Islands

Johnny Bliss, 2010

The feature is also available as a podcast after the show.

Listen to Reality Check on Monday, October 25th (12-14) for a special report on climate change and the plight of the the puffin breeding colonies of the Westmann Islands.