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December 29, 2010 / Dave Gorham

La Niña Responsible For Seabird Deaths?

We’re just wrapping up the first official week of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and boy did some of us in the Eastern U.S. have a white Christmas. Matter of fact, I spent most of the holidays in Birmingham, Alabama where it snowed on Christmas day. Of course, that was really exciting for me but I’m sure those who were traveling along the East Coast (particular those stranded at airports, on buses, etc) didn’t appreciate the snow. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, you probably wouldn’t associate cold weather and snow with Christmas time because in this part of the world it’s currently summer.

In New Zealand, Santa enjoys getting a suntan at the beach. Image: share-christmas.com

The first day of summer in New Zealand is December 1st and their summer months are December through February. The days are long and the nights are mild. If you’re a weather enthusiast or have been reading YourWeatherBlog for a while now, you’ve probably heard us mention the term La Niña several times. This weather phenomenon is characterized by the unusually cooler ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific with above-average rainfall over much of Australia. Oceanic and atmospheric anomalies reflect a moderate-to-strong La Niña occurring right now.

Average sea surface temperature (ºC) anomalies for the week of December 1st. Notice the cooler ocean temperatures in blue across the equatorial Pacific. Image: NOAA

Long-range models suggest that this La Niña event may be at its peak and it’s also being blamed for the reduction in fish stocks. Large numbers of penguins, petrels and other seabirds are dying because of the decrease of fish stocks in which they feed. Calm seas are also prohibiting the mixing of water columns and this makes it harder for seabirds to find food. The Department of Conservation predicts that hundreds, if not thousands, of birds are likely to die over the summer. Over the past several weeks, penguins have been washing up on the northern beaches of New Zealand and autopsies have determined starvation as the cause of death. Not only will penguins be affected but all seabirds will struggle to feed their chicks and/or breed.

Penguins have been washing up on Northland beaches in New Zealand. Photo: The Northern Advocate

On average, La Niña occurs every three to five years and can last up to 12 months. Right now, La Niña is expected to last at least into the Northern Hemisphere spring of 2011.

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