Intelligent Energy

The rise of the albatross: Good news for global warming

The rise of the albatross: Good news for global warming

Posting in Environment

The albatross suffers the world's worst public relations. It's nature's most marvelous flying machine, yet we know it as an impediment. Climate change could lift its reputation.

Albatross showing off its highly effective wings. Photo from van Poppel via Wikimedia.

The albatross suffers the world's worst public relations.  It is arguably nature's most miraculous flying machine, able to glide for thousands of miles without flapping its wings, which span up to 11 feet.

Yet people know the poor thing as a punishing impediment - something hung around someone's neck - thanks to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The albatross, around the time its reputation took a beating. (Gustave Doré engraving for Rime of the Ancient Mariner, from Wikimedia).

Now, climate change is doing its part to highlight the bird's marvels. Science reports that global warming is boosting average wind speeds over the Southern Ocean, quickening albatross foraging trips during nesting season to 9.7 days in 2008. In 1970, the same trip took 12.4 days.

The faster journeys have benefitted albatross welfare, fattening them up by more than a kilogram (2.2 pounds) to a more resilient weight, and increasing the survival rate of chicks. That's good, considering the albatross population has been shrinking.

But global warming that giveth also taketh away. Science warns, "The positive consequences of climate change may be temporary if patterns of wind in the southern westerlies follow predicted climate change scenarios."

The albatross is used to such fickleness. Before the 18th century seaman shot it with a crossbow, it enjoyed a splendid reputation as an omen of good sailing winds. For now, then, here's to the feathery creature's 15 minutes of fame.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure