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Record Late Snowpack: “A Year Without A Summer” for Greenland’s Shorebirds

The Arctic summer sees millions of shorebirds descend to mate and raise their young each year. But summer, which usually begins in mid-June, never arrived this year.

Instead, a record late snowpack—lingering into July—sealed the birds off from food and nesting sites. Without these key resources breeds like sanderlings, red knots and ruddy turnstones will not reproduce in 2018, experts say.

Snowmelt usually allows shorebirds to begin nesting on eastern Greenland’s treeless tundra during the first half of June, says Jeroen Reneerkens, an avian ecologist at the University of Groningen.

However, when he arrived this year at Zackenberg Station on June 14 to survey sanderlings he found they had nowhere to construct their nests. “The tundra was 100 percent covered in snow, and it was a very deep layer,” he says, estimating an average depth of about one meter. “It was a big shock to see the place like that,” he adds.

Zackenberg Station
Zackenberg Station under anomalous snow, 2018

This year the tundra was “truly silent,” Reneerkens says. “That was very unusual.”

The few shorebirds he did encounter, including sanderlings, ruddy turnstones and red knots, wandered the snow-free patches outside the station’s buildings in search of food.

“They were just starving,” he says. “I realized these birds were not getting ready to breed at all. They’re just in survival mode.”

Researchers elsewhere in the Arctic are also reporting unusually late snowmelt this year.

Richard Lanctot, a researcher for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, believes record late snowmelt inhibited nesting near Utqiavik (formerly Barrow) on the northern coast of Alaska. His group’s nest count this summer so far is among the lowest since they began monitoring in 2003.

Shiloh Schulte, an avian ecologist who works in northeastern Alaska, says snowmelt was more than two weeks later than normal in his region.

He noticed flocks of long-billed dowitchers and American golden plovers gathering to migrate south without breeding. “Everything needs to be timed perfectly for these birds to be successful,” Schulte says of the short Arctic summer.

The Arctic was always likely to be one of the first regions to suffer the effects of the GSM, with it’s already short summers so susceptible to a cooling climate.

And its shorebirds look set to be the first to suffer through a Year Without A Summer.

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