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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Our next story about earth's changing climate is part of a yearlong series that NPR is producing along with National Geographic. The story is set on some granite islands just off the coast of Northern California, once known as the Devil's Teeth.

Hundreds of thousands of migratory sea birds fly there every spring to breed and feast on sea life. But some of those birds recently started to abandon their nests, and scientists suspect it's because of shifts in global wind patterns - a consequence of global warming.

To find out more, an NPR reporter hitched a ride on a supply boat headed out to the islands. His report begins four hours later in high winds and heavy seas.

(Soundbite of sea waves)

JOHN NIELSEN: This is John Nielsen and I am seasick.

(Soundbite of sea waves)

NIELSEN: I am in the hold of a 30-foot sailboat headed west out of San Francisco Bay…

(Soundbite of sea waves)

NIELSEN: …to a bunch of rocky islands called the Farallons. Farallons happen to be a kind of a smoke alarm for climate change in the area. And according to some of the biologists on the boat with me, that smoke alarm is now going off.

(Soundbite of sea waves)

Unidentified Man #1: Okay, now watch the cables as we go up. Lift it up.

(Soundbite of cables pulling)

NIELSEN: Understanding how a bunch of islands can be smoke alarms got easier a half an hour later, after I had moved out of the supply boat and into a great big orange dinghy. There aren't any docks out on the Farallons, but there is a crane on a cliff that can lift dinghies up out of the water.

Unidentified Woman: We're airborne.

Unidentified Man #2: We are airborne.

Unidentified Man #3: Flying boat.

NIELSEN: As we rise, I start to see the nests built by as many as 200,000 breeding seabirds. Biologist Pete Warzybok says it looks like the nests are everywhere because they are everywhere.

Mr. PETE WARZYBOK (Biologist, PRBO Conservation Science): Pretty much every square inch of the island is used by one species or another - between the 12 species breeding here they cover every bit.

NIELSEN: Warzybok works for PRBO Conservation Science, a non-profit group that studies seabirds on the Farallons at the behest of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

(Soundbite of seabirds squawking)

NIELSEN: As he brings the dinghy down, we're swarmed by shrieking western gulls that try to hit us in the head with poop bombs. Welcome to the Farallons National Wildlife Refuge, Warzybok says. You may hate the howling winds and the wicked winter storms…

Mr. WARZYBOK: But it's a perfect place for the seabirds and they usually thrive out here.

(Soundbite of seabirds squawking)

NIELSEN: Warzybok says these seabirds thrive because those howling winds have turned this refuge into one big feeding trough. Almost every spring, he says, the winds churn the ocean in a way that pulls bottom waters up to the surface.

A colleague of Warzybok named Russ Bradley says these giant upwellings of water are usually full of tiny animals called krill - breeding seabirds can't get enough of it.

Mr. RUSS BRADLEY (Biologist, PRBO Conservation Science): That's really the base of the ocean food chain in this area, and as krill goes, so goes the system.

NEILSEN: Bradley says that point was pounded home three years ago, when something knocked this giant ecosystem badly out of whack - seabird populations crashed all over the islands, he says. And one of them, a reclusive bird that calls out in the middle of the night, crashed right through the floor.

(Soundbite of seabirds squawking)

NIELSEN: Okay. It's four in the morning. I am sitting on the leeward side of the field house on the Farallons.

(Soundbite of seabirds squawking)

NIELSEN: Can you hear that? That call that sounds sort of like, let me in, let me in.

(Soundbite of seabirds squawking)

NIELSEN: Anyway, that is the call of the Cassin's auklet - of the bird whose sudden collapse turned it into kind of poster species for the effect that climate change can have on wildlife.

(Soundbite of seabirds squawking)

NIELSEN: Biologist Pete Warzybok says the Cassin's auklet used to be one of the most common birds on the Farallons. But three years ago, after flying in and breeding like they always do, the auklets suddenly abandoned all of their nests.

Mr. WARZYBOK: They laid eggs, but then they just could not continue the effort. It takes a lot of energy to breed, and there just wasn't enough food out there to support all that effort, so they abandoned the eggs.

NEILSEN: Warzybok and Russ Bradley say they read through 40 years worth of field notes kept by seabird experts on the islands, and found nothing close to what they'd seen. But one year later, according to Bradley, they saw it all happen again.

Mr. BRADLEY: That's what started to make us worry.

NEILSEN: Bradley says he isn't sure what forced this seabird crisis. But he does have a strong suspicion. It involves the jet stream that blows high up in the atmosphere. In recent years, the jet stream has been changing its path in ways that might be linked to global warming. Bradley thinks these changes warped the winds that feed the Farallons.

Mr. BRADLEY: And that's where we think things broke down in the past couple of years.

NEILSEN: So the upwelling didn't come when it was supposed to come?

Mr. BRADLEY: No.

NEILSEN: The winds didn't blow like they were supposed to blow?

Mr. BRADLEY: No.

NEILSEN: And the birds didn't breed like they were supposed to breed.

Mr. BRADLEY: No.

NEILSEN: Is that what you call a global warming footprint?

Mr. BRADLEY: It's definitely one way to interpret it. For sure, it is something that's - it's always present in your mind and it's something that we know is happening.

NEILSEN: If these changes hold and spread, they could end up disrupting one of the most productive ocean currents in the world. It runs from Alaska down to Baja California and it is full of commercially important fish that feed on krill. If these fish stocks were to crash, Bradley says, the economic impacts could be huge and lasting. He says he doesn't know whether this will happen, however. And so far this year, the Cassin's auklets aren't giving him any clues.

The birds did stay on their nests this year, but the chicks have not done well. Many are small and weak, and some died of starvation.

John Nielsen, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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