The climate crisis hath done a dreadful thing. Not content with coming for Americans’ Thanksgiving cranberries, it is causing an upsurge in divorce among albatrosses. God save thee, ancient alarmist! Where will it end? Quoth the Boston Globe: “Why climate change is forcing albatross couples to divorce”. Nay, not whether, but why. And cry not “unhand me, grey-beard loon!” Mankind hath penance done, and penance more will do for letting fly at this sweet bird with a crossbow bolt of lethal CO2.
Oh, it’s a sad tale. Told by the Globe’s “climate producer” and self-described “Earther”, fully seven years out of Sarah Lawrence College where she studied Liberal Arts and Political Philosophy and was on the “Workers Justice, Diversity and Activism Planning Subcommittee” and thus may well know as much about the albatross as she does about Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Still, she can turn a mean phrase. Like those tear-jerkers about the doomed polar bears and penguins, hers on this magnificent bird begins “Albatrosses are fiercely loyal creatures…” Yay albatrosses. “When they couple up, it’s usually for life.” Humans should do the same. “But in recent years, they’ve been splitting more often. Increasing water temperatures amid climate change may be to blame, according to a study published by the UK’s Royal Society on Wednesday.”
Eh? How did we get from “why” to “may”? Well, for starters, apparently that coupling for life business doesn’t mean no fun on the side for the enterprising albatross. “They do engage in ‘extra-pair copulation,’ better known as cheating. Despite these affairs, they usually manage only to nest with their main mates, returning year after year to the same nesting spots to breed with one another, and care for their young. Rates of ‘divorce’—wherein pairs stop nesting together—have averaged below 4 percent.”
Alas, they’re in hot water now. As anyone might be who told their significant other they hadn’t cheated, merely engaged in “extra-pair copulation.” Apparently this new report looked at over 15,000 of these feathered swingers over 15 years in the “remote South Atlantic Falkland Islands” and by visual inspection and GPS tracking found that “In years where waters were cool, as few as 1% of albatross pairs headed to splitsville. But the researchers found that in years where water temperatures were unusually warm, instances of divorce rose dramatically, with up to 8% of couples breaking up.”
We could raise all the usual points including that it’s not a very big sample numerically, chronologically or geographically. And that if albatrosses have evolved adaptive behaviour to bouts of warmer water, those bouts have presumably been coming and going for a long time. Or we could suggest that no wonder there’s discord in the home with endless cawing about climate change. But apparently it’s justified because “The new study is the latest sign that the climate crisis is leaving seabirds in peril.”
The latest? Oh yeah. “Previous research has found that scarcer prey is threatening albatrosses’ reproductive success and making it harder for baby birds to survive. Fishing boats and trawls are also killing an increasing number of the birds. Some kinds of albatrosses are among the most endangered birds in the world. Without urgent action to stop ocean-warming greenhouse gas emissions, they could soon be gone for good.” Um that whole list of serious problems didn’t mention warmth being deadly.
In fact the albatross does face a number of significant issues, from overhunting in the 19th century to commercial longline fishing which kills an estimated 100,000 a year to pollution to invasive species like rats and cats that eat the eggs or the chicks. Wikipedia even throws plastic into the mix. Of 22 species recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (others say as few as 13 or as many as 24), all are being monitored and eight are endangered or critically so. But not by climate change. And as so often, the obsessive focus on the invisible menace of an invisible gas causing at most a very slight temperature increase diverts time, money and attention away from things that we probably could largely fix.
Here we must again raise the point that in politics, the popular press and people roaming the streets shouting, it is widely believed that 1.2°C of warming since 1850 has caused the weather to become “a nature hike through the Book of Revelation” in Al Gore’s revealing and oft-repeated phrase, and tipped ecosystems straight into the dumpster. Which is ridiculous because if species were that vulnerable to minor fluctuations Darwin would have to go into it. We know for a fact that the Holocene Climatic Optimum was warmer than today, even if some people won’t accept that the Medieval Warm Period was, and the net effect on albatross survival or domestic bliss was zip. Just as the polar bears got through the Eemian interglacial, again known to have been warmer than today.
Never mind interglacials. The albatross family, aka the Diomedeidae, are believed to have evolved at least 30 million years ago although, you’ll never guess, the science is not settled. Indeed they’ve been going at it hammer and tongs over the species and even the genera. But not even Michael Mann will tell you it wasn’t warmer in the Paleogene.
No, really. All this stuff is in Wikipedia. The reporter just had to Google. You do know how to Google, don’t you? Surely all that activism at least taught you that skill. So here we go: “A 2018 study estimated that during the early Palaeogene about 56-48 million years ago, annual air temperatures, over land and at mid-latitude, averaged about 23–29 °C (± 4.7 °C), which is 5–10 °C higher than most previous estimates.” So the um science isn’t settled. But NB that “For comparison, this was 10 to 15 °C higher than the current annual mean temperatures in these areas.” And all together now: “The authors suggest that the current atmospheric carbon dioxide trajectory, if it continues, could establish these temperatures again.” Really. A 15°C temperature increase. Scientists say.
Again, never mind. And never mind that those temperatures made the planet so inhospitable that “Mammals began a rapid diversification during this period.” The point is that even the later Paleogene was warmer than today. Much warmer. And the result for albatross breeding was… happy times.
Stories like the albatross divorce epidemic are not just unscientific. They have lost all pretence to be science. And everyone swoops on them like an albatross on a rotting squid. (Sorry to spoil the mood, but they are among other things scavengers. Hey, a bird’s gotta make a living.) Thus The Atlantic says “It’s Not You, It’s Climate Change”. And let’s be fair, that author holds a PhD in Microbiology and immunology from Harvard.
Still not a climate scientist, at least by the exacting standards applied to skeptics. But her prose about the lovey-doveyness of the albatross is a bit more restrained than that of the Boston Globe. And her alarmism is damped down further: “Fluctuating environmental conditions – likely a symptom of climate change – may be the culprit.” Commendable caution. Or not, because the notion that fluctuating environmental conditions are brand new and therefore likely a symptom of climate change is utter bunk. Which means the saccharine stuff about how “I don’t think the birds will have time to adapt,” is also bunk. They did when the Holocene started. Suddenly. With dramatic reversals.
The BBC didn’t bother with the subtlety. “Climate change causing albatross divorce, says study”. And nobody has a sense of humour any more, apparently. Or even sufficient self-awareness to realize that it reads like the Babylon Bee. Naturally the article is less comically dogmatic than the headline. But it mangles the science. Starting with “Just 1% of albatrosses separate after choosing their life partner – much lower than the human divorce rate in the UK.” The latter part is true. But not the former. That’s the number when conditions are good. And conditions are not always good. The Disneyfied view of nature prevalent among urban activists with MAs in journalism and BAs in International History (not that there’s anything wrong with history, provided you learn some history of the Earth before writing about climate) imagines that nobody gets eaten, starves or suffers some other unsightly fate in the Eden that persists wherever the hand of man does not set crossbow.
The albatross is deeply cool. The great albatross and especially the wandering albatross have the largest wingspan of any living bird, reaching 11 feet while weighing just 22 lbs. And they cruise around with spectacular elegance. (If we say they look surprisingly like large seagulls we are not being insulting.)
It is also true, to hear Coleridge tell it, that if you kill one, you’ll end up with a seabird necklace, a long grey beard and glittering eye, a very guilty conscience and a hard time getting wedding invitations. But it is not true that if you emit CO2 you will experience any of these things, or an upsurge in invitations to second albatross weddings.