Carbon Emissions from Fossil Fuels and its Effects on Bird Communities


Greenhouse gases are gases that have been trapped in the Earth and emit radiant energy into the atmosphere. These gases contribute to a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect, which is an important factor that plays a role in the thermal behavior of the Earth. The greenhouse effect is related to the release of carbon emissions, and other pollutants (Tubiello, et al. 2014). The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most abundant greenhouse gas released by human activity, and is primarily released by the use of fossil fuels (Matson, et al. 2010). Fossil fuels are fuels that are burned by humans for energy use and contributes to the largest source of emissions of CO2. The main fossil fuels that contribute to the emissions of CO2 are coal, natural gas, and oil (Tubiello, et al. 2014). Coal is a vital source of energy for humans, and contributes to a significant amount of CO2 that is released into the atmosphere. CO2 is released into the atmosphere by combustion of coal, releasing twice as much CO2 as natural gases (Hong and Slatick, 1994). Natural gases release the lowest amount of CO2 compared to coal and oil.

The methods of drilling and extracting natural gas results in a significant amount of methane being released, which is 34 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Although natural gas releases less CO2 than coal and oil, the amount of methane that is released is a huge factor in global warming (“Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas.”, 2013). The process of producing and refining oil into fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Oil does not emit as much CO2 as coal, but reducing the amount released is important since transportation systems are so dependent on the use of oil.

There are not many other alternatives to replace this fossil fuel, which can be a complication in the near future (Masnadi, 2018). Oil releases a moderate amount of CO2, but oil also releases sulfur dioxide, which is a gas that can affect the respiratory systems of a variety of living creatures other, including humans, and is a major factor that contributes to acid rain (“GCSE Bitesize: Fuels for Power Stations.”, 2014). The efforts to reduce greenhouse gases are becoming more serious towards the future since the situation is becoming more threatening.

The purpose of this review paper is to consider how carbon emissions are affecting bird communities. Due to the increase in greenhouse gases and effects of global warming, emissions are causing an indirect effect in bird communities (Sorte and Finke, 2017). Birds are typically found in multiple ecosystems and perform a variety of ecological functions. Birds consume insects, which benefit farms and other agricultural areas since the consumption of insects is considered a natural pest control method. Birds also act as pollinators; they contribute in pollination by consuming the nectar in plants, indirectly assisting in fertilization to increase the growth of plants. Birds consume fruits, and dispersing the seeds after eating, which is another method of indirect assistance for propagation and sustainability (Harwood, et al., 2014). Bird communities are currently at risk, often with high levels of bird deaths annually (Sovacool, 2013). The drilling and processing of coal and oil has poisoned hundreds of birds and abandoned sites have been considered hazardous to any living species (Sovacool, 2012).

Literature Review

The high oil contamination rates that occurred in the Belgium coast is related to the high mortality rates of seabirds. The trend of oil contamination is a progressing issue that is happening globally and has wiped out a large population of seabirds. The seabirds stumble across an oil patch in an area on the North Sea area of the Belgium Coast and would experience lethal effects. This study was done by monitoring seabirds for 50 years and the highest amount of reports have been at the North Sea region. The analysis of the recent years of this study revealed a substantial decrease in oil pollution, indicating that there is also a decline in bird mortalities. The study focuses on the correlating trends between oil rates and bird mortality. Reports were initiated in 1950 and were recorded annually for 50 years in 1962 by the International Beached Bird Survey (IBBS) program. Data for the study were recorded every winter month from November to March due to beach cleanings that occurred during other months. There have been a few excluded months from this study such as in 2003 between the months of January and February. These months were not considered due to a car carrier known as Tricolor causing a large oil spill in the Belgium coast. The incident resulted in many accidental casualties. This study primarily focused on chronic oil pollution; therefore, any random oil spills has been omitted. The birds have been categorized by their species, age, amount of oil that was found on the carcass of the bird, and if they were deceased or alive during the findings. Linear regression was a statistical test that was used to compare the winter and species group with a model known as GLM (generalized linear model). The results from these reports were reviewed for each winter interval with the comparison of bird mortalities and time to analyze the trend of bird mortality. From the results, there is a substantial decrease in bird mortalities throughout the study period. During the 1960s to 1970, the average amount of birds that were found was 5.5 birds/km while the average amount of birds in 2000 was 0.7 birds/km. The data interprets that there is a decreasing trend that represents the decreasing amount of birds found in oil polluted areas. There was also a declining trend with bird strandings that were not affected by the oil, but the trend was not as prominent as the birds affected by oil. Excluding two species of birds (tubenoses and gannets and waders), all of the species groups show a decline in bird mortality. The tubenoses and gannets group had varied numbers each season and had intervals of a high or low abundances of birds. The GLM indicated that the oil rates from the study period showed significance in all of the species groups. The results also indicated that high oil rates are related to seabirds that spend their time swimming and average oil rates are related to seabirds that spend their time flying. The other species that usually do not swim or fly, but were found at the North Sea, had lower rates compared to swimming and flying birds. Based on the results, the trends that were being compared were the oil rates and abundance of oiled birds that were found on the North Sea areas. In conclusion, these two trends indicate that there is a continuing decline in chronic oil pollution in the 1960s, which was when the study period has begun. There is another study that is mentioned that supports the conclusion of declining oil rates, which involved the study of guillemots in the Netherlands. The data matched the same pattern as the study with the oil pollution and birds in the North Sea. The biggest concern about oil pollution in the North Sea is the illegal dumping of oil from shipping companies and leakage of oil by offshore installations. These two concerns are the primary sources of oil that have contaminated the North Sea which resulted in many bird mortalities. The study indicates that the decline of bird mortalities is due to the decrease in oil pollution and not by any other factors. Although there is a decrease in chronic oil pollution in the North Sea, oil pollution is still a reoccurring problem in other countries and is global issue rather than a local one.

Oil pollution is a common issue from oil contamination that is affecting the waters that bird populations interact with. Although there are issues in aquatic regions, there are issues in other areas in regards to the disposal of oil. Commercial and centralized oilfield wastewater disposal facilities (COWDFs) are areas where companies dispose the water that is brought up from oil and natural gas wells. These facilities use specific disposal sites called evaporation ponds to dump the produced water in. Unfortunately, these birds approach the evaporation ponds without knowing how dangerous these sites are. The disposed water is treated through heater treaters, which separates the water using heat from any traces of contaminants from oil wells. The disposed water is discharged into skim pits, which are pits that are used to further separate the produced water using gravity separation, or evaporation ponds. Furthermore, the disposed water from natural gas wells are treated with glycol and other chemicals in attempt to separate the water from natural gas, which can contain petroleum and other harmful substances. Due to the increased usage of natural gas, the amount of natural gas wells will increase, and the increase number of wells relate to the increase of bird mortalities. There have been some improvements in regulating the skim pits and evaporation ponds to prevent further issues, but there is still a high amount of mortalities found in the COWDFs. The primary cause of bird mortalities in the skim pits and evaporation ponds result from the poor regulation of the separation process before the produced water is dumped into the evaporation ponds. Birds and other wildlife species approach these skim pits and evaporation ponds assuming that they are regular ponds. Many birds are trapped into these pits and ponds, and die from exposure from the toxic substances and exhaustion. Some birds may escape, however they can die from consuming the oil by cleaning it off their feathers, being exposed to the chemicals and oil in the ponds, and becoming vulnerable to disease and predators. Due to the amount of bird mortalities found in these areas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to hold 154 inspections in 28 COWDFs in Wyoming. The focus of this study was to determine the amount of bird mortalities and any other wildlife found from the inspected COWDFs. During the inspections, the inspectors were searching for any sign of birds and wildlife present in these ponds. The inspectors were able to find birds that were trapped and birds that were found dead in the pits. An abundance of bird mortalities was found in 9 COWDFs with a total of 269 dead birds. In these COWDFs, 88% of dead birds recovered were aquatic birds. From inspecting the ponds, the bird mortalities resulted from traces of oil, although some mortalities were from sodium toxicity and surfactants from the evaporation ponds. The sodium concentrations from the birds were between 4,710 to 30,823 g/g wet weight. A lethal amount of sodium is considered greater than 20,000 g/g wet weight. The surfactants are placed in the ponds to reduce surface tension, however the water can absorb into the skin and affect the skin and feathers. The companies that regulate the skim pits and the ponds were not familiar with the effects of the surfactants in the evaporation ponds, which is an issue that must be improved. The actual number of bird mortalities is most likely higher than what was inspected. The remains of birds could have decayed through time or affected by the weather in the pits or ponds, which proposes the idea of inspecting these pits or ponds weekly rather than annually. The companies that were responsible for regulating the skim pits and evaporation ponds have repeated problems with oil exposure in these areas. The exposed oil is due to improper operations and management of COWDFs. Some COWDFs do not have the separation technology to separate the contaminants and the water. This polluted, oiled water is dumped straight into the evaporation ponds. Without removing the oil in these areas will result in chronic oil pollution in these pits and ponds. Suggestions to remove contaminants from these pits and ponds are deep well injections, prevention of disposing oiled water, and netting. Deep well injections would terminate evaporation ponds in general, therefore there may be a reduced mortality rate for birds. Although evaporation ponds are a part of COWDFs, there should be a stricter regulation is the use of surfactants and other chemicals and release of contaminated water in these ponds. The pits and ponds of COWDFs should have a netting method that prevents birds and other wildlife species into coming into the ponds. Although there are some efforts in reducing oil pollution, there is still a large mortality rate that is related to oil pollution in COWDFs. Operations of COWDFs must improve the management of oil pollution in skim pits and evaporation ponds to reduce the mortality rate of birds and other wildlife species. There must be a more cost-effective method and a system to recycle the water dumped in evaporation ponds to construct a lasting solution that can reduce the issue of contaminated evaporation ponds in COWDFs.

Humans rely on fossil fuels to power their daily needs without consciously thinking about how these fossil fuels can be costly to bird species. By obtaining coal, oil, and natural gases, there are certain methods that contribute to bird mortalities; upstream for coal, downstream poisoning, and the effects of climate change. In 2004, more than 387,000 acres of deciduous forests were cut down as a part of the upstream for coal. Due to the deforestation, about 191,722 Cerulean Warblers died due to the destruction of their habitat, resulting in about 0.02 Warbler deaths per gigawatt hour (GWh). A gigawatt hour is a unit of energy that represent one billion watt hours. From the drilling of coal during the downstream process, sulfur and nitrogen are released into the atmosphere. Both of these compounds can combine with water and create acid rain. Acid rain has been associated with bronchial constriction, elevated pulmonary resistance, and a change in metabolism in birds. Acid rain can also reduce the amount of wood thrushes in the forests due to wood thrushes living in high elevated areas, which is where many coal sources are found. Since coal sources and wood thrushes are both found in high elevated areas, these areas would result in higher rates of acid rain. The increased amount of acid rain would produce an outcome of 0.05 bird deaths per GWh. Another lethal substance that is released into the atmosphere involving the use of fossil fuels is mercury. Mercury has effected bird egg weight, the growth of embryos, and other deformities in birds. The exposure of mercury has causes a decline in 14 different bird species and has resulted in about 0.06 bird deaths per GWh. Climate change is a danger to bird species and is considered a persisting problem to birds. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that 15% to 37% of all bird species will become extinct by 2050. From the effects of climate change, the amount of bird deaths adds up to 9.16 bird deaths per GWh. Based on the data collected from the US Energy Information Administration, the amount of pollution that has affected bird species resulted in 23.96 million bird mortalities per year, which includes climate change. In conclusion, this study reveals the hazardous effects of fossil fuels to bird species. Fossil fueled power plants are responsible for around 24 million bird deaths itself. Decreasing the usage of fossil fuels can prevent the increase of bird mortalities.


Bird populations are directly and indirectly affected by the increase of carbon emissions due to the use of fossil fuels. Bird populations are affected directly by the increase of CO2 with the use of coal, natural gases, and oil. Coal has diminished bird populations from poisoning birds that may live around the coal mines and the abandoned sites contain hazardous material that are unsafe for birds to occupy. Many organizations such as UNFCCC and REDD+ are attempting to make an impact in decreasing carbon emissions or conserving biodiversity, which are two important factors in limiting climate change. There are still many issues that must be addressed due to the current situation that is occurring. Global warming is becoming more of a problem every day that more fossil fuels are being used and more species, such as bird populations, are currently being affected by them. There are many other factors that are relative to global warming, while carbon emissions are the primary reason of climate change.


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