Seabirds like the puffin are cute and curious things, and it turns out that if we help them thrive we can help the carbon cycle. Habitats that are good for seabirds can sequester carbon efficiently and due to the level of nutrients can provide energy for other lifeforms. The key for seabirds is their colony size, right now they are tiny and spirited; instead, by getting colonies to be in the same area the benefits are exponential due to more robust biodiversity.
Restoring seabirds could bolster ocean ecosystems and their ability to draw down carbon dioxide, said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a climate scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, who recently co-authored a research paper in Science that spells out the the connections between biodiversity, ecosystem protection and climate stabilization.
In addition to direct CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and other industrial processes, the disruption of ecosystems and biodiversity declines have also significantly contributed to rising atmospheric greenhouse concentrations that are heating up the planet, he said.
“Biodiversity loss contributes to climate change through loss of wild species and biomass,” the paper concluded. “This reduces carbon stocks and sink capacity in natural and managed ecosystems, increasing emissions.”
In Iceland puffins get help from humans who volunteer on the Puffling Patrol to ensure that the little birds can thrive. When baby puffins, known as pufflings, hatch they usually head to the sea from their nests on shore, but when bright lights are nearby they’ll go towards the light. To get these pufflings away from dangerous lit areas like roads, factories, or other human made structures volunteers escort the birds to the water. It’s adorable and helpful.
They’re part of the Puffling Patrol, a Heimaey volunteer brigade tasked with shepherding little puffins on their journey. Every year during the roughly monthlong fledging season, kids here get to stay up very late. On their own or with parents, on foot or by car, they roam the town peeking under parked vehicles, behind stacks of bins at the fish-processing plants, inside equipment jumbled at the harbor. The stranded young birds tend to take cover in tight spots. Flushing them out and catching them is the perfect job for nimble young humans. But the whole town joins in, even the police.
No one knows exactly when the tradition started. Lifelong resident Svavar Steingrímsson, 86, did it when he was young. He thinks the need arose when electric lights came to Heimaey in the early 1900s. Saving the young birds likely began as “a mix of sport and humanity,” Steingrímsson tells me in Icelandic translated by his grandson, Sindri Ólafsson. Also, he says, people probably wanted to sustain the population of what was then an important food source.