The annual announcement of the minimum extent of the Arctic’s summer sea ice has become one of the more important metrics by which we measure the rate of change of our warming world. This year’s minimum extent of 3.4 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles) on September 16 broke the previous minimum set in 2007 and was half of the average minimum for 1979-2000. This 3.5 million square kilometer loss in ice extent in the last twelve years is equal to an area two times the size of the State of Alaska.
After my three months on Cooper Island each summer studying Black Guillemots and their response to the ice retreat, I am always surprised to return to find that the media is again discussing the ice loss primarily as a physical phenomenon, similar to what is being reported in the decrease of glaciers, rather than one of unprecedented biological loss and degradation of a unique marine ecosystem. The discussion of loss of tropical rainforest, another unique ecosystem undergoing major reduction, is almost always framed in an ecological context, with discussion of the effects of habitat loss on habitat and species. This contrasts with the media’s treatment of the loss of arctic sea ice where there may be token mention of some of the megafauna affected, such as walrus and polar bears, but a failure to mention that the less charismatic components of the ice-associated ecosystem, consisting of ice-algae, zooplankton, fish, seals and seabirds, now have far less habitat supporting them as they did in the last two decades of the Twentieth Century. The complete disappearance of the summer sea ice habitat in the Arctic, predicted to occur in this century, will be the largest loss of an ecosystem the planet has experienced in modern times.
The Black Guillemots breeding on Cooper Island are part of a guillemot subspecies that is one of the few seabird populations dependent on ice-associated prey throughout the year. Our forty years of observations at the Cooper Island Black Guillemot colony has shown how the rapid decrease of ice in the last decade has reduced breeding success, as parent birds provisioning young in August and September struggle to find prey in ice-free waters. In the past few months, we have found another way in which the reduction of sea ice habitat is affecting the birds. By deploying geolocators, which are attached to a bird’s tarsus and use time of sunrise and sunset to identify geographic position, on five breeding birds in 2011 we were able to track their movements from September 2011 to June 2012.
I frequently saw Black Guillemots at the ice edge in September and October during my early years in the Arctic when I was observing birds and mammals at the ice edge in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The unprecedented retreat of summer ice in the past decade has made me wonder where guillemots now go after breeding as the ice edge in fall is now hundreds of miles north of the Alaska coast when it used to be just offshore (Figure 1). The data we retrieved from the geolocators this June shows that guillemots are still going to the edge of the sea ice in the post-breeding period, but now are having to traveling 300 to 500 miles north in search of their preferred sea ice habitat.
The extent of this post-breeding pursuit of sea ice is demonstrated in the movements of a male guillemot that has bred on Cooper Island for the past decade (Figure 2). After its young had fledged on September 4, the bird flew north to the shelf break and remained there for a little over a week before starting a one-week 300 mile trip to the pack ice edge. Our discovery that post-breeding Black Guillemots now make a 600 to 1000-mile roundtrip to the fall ice edge, when in the past they encountered ice just north of the Alaskan arctic coast, has a number of implications. It demonstrates that the guillemots breeding on Cooper Island now have the increased energy demands of extensive post-breeding movements at a time when they have just completed their three-month breeding season and while they have the increased energy demands of replacing their feathers — limiting temporarily their ability to fly. The findings also suggest that guillemots will continue to move north in search of ice after breeding. As summer sea ice is predicted to decrease and eventually disappear in the Arctic over the next few decades, guillemots in northern Alaska guillemots will have increasingly long post-breeding movements that will eventually culminate in their moving north in search of ice in an Arctic Ocean that has no ice.
Our research on the movements of guillemots is continuing as we outfitted ten birds with geolocators near the end of the 2012 season. Their post-breeding movements this year will be of great interest given the record ice retreat of this past fall. Additionally, Iain Stenhouse, who supplied Friends of Cooper Island with the geolocators in 2011, and I will be working more with the 2011-2012 data logs to examine the effect of ice on movements to and from the Bering Sea wintering grounds.
Sea ice in the Arctic is always in a state of flux even in winter. Some Black Guillemots take advantage of this by wintering in chronic lead systems, which are present where the right combination of wind and currents cause fracturing that creates areas of open water deep in the pack ice. The chronic lead system just offshore of Barrow supports a small number of Black Guillemots throughout the winter, with birds being recorded there for the past 150 years. The presence of this chronic lead also means guillemots wintering in the Bering Sea can return to northern Alaska waters in late winter when most of the Arctic is still frozen.
Last fall’s record retreat of sea ice, means that there is far more first-year ice in the Arctic Basin than usual. The lack of thick multi-year ice is apparently the reason a large area of the Beaufort Sea recently underwent a major fracturing event that began in February and increased in area and rate of fracturing through March. Current ice conditions in the Beaufort are similar to what was seen in early May last year, indicating that the breakup of the Beaufort could be a month ahead of last year’s record-breaking schedule.
The video shows the February through March fracturing and the location of Cooper Island, 25 miles east of Point Barrow. It ends with the excellent schematic of the pack ice ecosystem produced by the Arctic Council and makes the point that changes to the arctic pack ice are causing changes and losses to a major ecosystem. While the media regularly reports on observed decreases in sea ice extent and volume, they typically ignore that it is not just a physical loss of ice that is occurring but that an entire ecosystem and its biotic components are being disrupted and diminished. Loss of ice in the western Beaufort Sea in the last decade is why Black Guillemot parents stopped feeding their young Arctic Cod in August and why polar bears now are regular visitors to Cooper Island. The presence of hungry bears on the island is the reason why we now live in a cabin and why the guillemots breed in plastic Nanuk cases, both visible in an aerial view of the island last summer.
Our field season begins in approximately two months when we will be able to see if ice retreat from the nearshore will be even earlier than in the past decade and what it will mean to the Black Guillemots and the other fauna dependent on the fracturing and disappearing ice.
View of Cooper Island from the air. Click picture for a larger image.
While no year on Cooper Island is like any other, so far the 2012 field season has been more different than most. For that reason ( and also because Max Czapankskiy did such a good job with his blogposts in June) I am way behind in my postings. In late June I took a rare break from my fieldwork to attend the Aspen Environment Forum, and early July has kept me busy monitoring guillemot egg-laying, which was delayed and disrupted by falcons and fox. I will be describing those events later but wanted to first relate some experiences and thoughts about our first days on the island in early June.
This year I wanted to arrive on Cooper Island earlier than usual for a number of reasons. Transporting two people, their gear and food the 25 miles from Barrow to Cooper Island is not a minor undertaking, and can take numerous charter helicopter or airplane flights. Travel to the island is less expensive using snowmachines and sleds over the nearshore ice, but the warmer springs in northern Alaska have made traveling over the ice after early June very wet and potentially dangerous.
Max and I were lucky to have three Barrow residents, Billy Adams, Bobby Sarren, and Craig George, devote the time to provide their snowmachines and extensive skills in traveling on sea ice to deliver us to the sand and gravel bar that has been my summer home since the mid-1970s.
Our early June arrival allowed us to set up camp before the guillemots’ first return to the island, so that we could start censusing the birds immediately after their first return to land in nine months. Since 1978 the majority (typically >90 percent) of the colony has been banded with metal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bands as well as three plastic color bands that allow identification of individuals with binoculars. Typically I will arrive on the island a week or so after the guillemots. By that time the birds have pretty much sorted themselves out, showing the over-90 percent mate and nest site fidelity they have displayed over the past four decades.
As Max and I were censusing in the first days of the birds’ arrival I was glad to see that over-winter survival of last year’s breeders appeared to approximate the expected 85 percent. But I was surprised to see that many birds were not at the sites they occupied last summer nor with their previous mates. I had forgotten that the period of arrival and initial visits to the nests is a time when one can see birds that do not even breed in the same subcolony courting like a well-established pair, and birds visiting parts of the colony where I have never seen them before. So while our early arrival did allow us to determine what birds had survived since last August, the information we obtained on very early season pairings and nest ownership was less valuable. Still, for someone well acquainted with the 300 guillemots currently breeding on Cooper Island, it was interesting to see what they do and how they sort out before getting down to the serious business of the 80-day breeding period.
In the last two days the ice has disappeared from the north side of the island, with only a trace of white on the horizon indicating there is some pack ice about seven miles away. I had heard that arctic sea ice melt is approximating the record melt of 2007 and would not be surprised to see a polar bear arrive in the next week.
COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — While no year on Cooper Island is like any other, so far the 2012 field season has been more different than most. For that reason ( and also because Max Czapankskiy did such a good job with his blogposts in June) I am way behind in my postings. In late June I took a rare break from my fieldwork to attend the Aspen Environment Forum where I was interviewed on Talk of the Nation, and early July has kept me busy monitoring guillemot egg laying that was delayed and disrupted by falcons and fox. I will be describing those in detail later but wanted to first relate some experiences and thoughts about our first days on the island in early June.
This year I wanted to arrive on Cooper Island earlier than most years for a number of reasons. Transporting two people, their gear and food the 25 miles from Barrow to Cooper Island is not a minor undertaking and can take numerous charter helicopter or airplane flights. Travel to the island is less expensive using snowmachines and sleds over the nearshore ice, but the warmer springs in northern Alaska have made traveling over the ice after early June very wet and potentially dangerous.
Max and I were lucky that three Barrow residents, Billy Adams, Billy Adams, Bobby Sarren and Craig George had the time to provide their snowmachines and extensive skills in traveling on sea ice to deliver us to the sand and gravel bar that has been my summer home since the mid-1970s.
Our early June arrival allowed us to set up camp before the guillemots first return to the island so that we could start censusing them immediately after their first return to land in nine months. Since 1978 the majority (typically >90 percent) of the colony has been banded with metal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bands as well as three plastic color bands that allow identification of individuals with binoculars. Typically, I will arrive on the island a week or so after the guillemots and by that time the birds have pretty much sorted themselves out showing the over 90 percent mate and nest site fidelity they have displayed over the past four decades.
As Max and I were censusing in the first days of the birds arrival I was glad to see that over-winter survival of last year’s breeders appeared to approximate the expected 85 percent, but was surprised to see that many birds were not at the sites they occupied last summer nor with their previous mates. I had forgotten that the period of arrival and initial visits to the nests is a time when one can see birds that do not even breed in the same subcolony courting like a well-established pair and birds will visit parts of the colony where I have never seen them before. So while our early arrival did allow us to determine what birds survived since last August, the information we obtained on very early season pairings and nest ownership was less valuable. Still for someone well acquainted with the 300 guillemots currently breeding on Cooper Island, it was interesting to see what they do and how they sort out before getting down to the serious business of the 80-day breeding period.
In the last two days the ice disappeared from the north side of the island with only a trace of white on the horizon indicating there is some pack ice about seven miles away. I have heard that arctic sea ice melt is approximating the record melt of 2007 and would not be surprised to see a polar bear arrive in the next week.
Author’s note: This post was written on June 25th while I was still on the island.
Given the right conditions, a visitor to Cooper Island might hear George or me say, “Gordon Gecko and the Greek are at R2-D2” or “The internet is in the doghouse.” Though such jargon would, presumably, leave our visitor flabbergasted, there is a method to our madness. “Gordon Gecko and the Greek are in R2-D2” means a bird with green, black, and orange bands is with another bird with green, red, and black bands at the second site in the R subcolony. Likewise, “The internet is in the doghouse” tells us a bird with three white bands is at the ninth site in the K subcolony. To understand why our doggerel translates into meaningful data, one needs to know how we name nests and birds.
The colony on Cooper Island is divided into 23 subcolonies and each one has a letter associated with it (A-U, W, and Z). The sites within each subcolony are numbered. Thus nests are written as A-05 or Q-12, but we use the phonetic alphabet so they’re pronounced Alpha Five and Quebec Twelve. There are, however, some exceptions. U subcolony is called Ukpeagvik, after the Inupiat name for Barrow. M and P are named for George’s field assistants, Penelope and Max (yours truly). G was going to be George, but he insisted we call it Gnome instead. Gnome subcolony is a great example of George’s humor for two reasons. First, the G is silent. Second, it gives us the joke, “What do you call a feather from gnome subcolony? A Plume de Gnome.” In the field, however, many sites get referred to by their nicknames, instead. For example, U-04 is Euphoria and G-08 is the G-8 Summit. The aforementioned R2-D2 and Doghouse are R-02 and K-09, respectively.
This pair at K-12 (AKA the School House) are members of Friends of Cooper Island’s educational program, No Guillemot Left Behind.
This pair at K-12 (AKA the School House) are members of Friends of Cooper Island’s educational program, No Guillemot Left Behind
Each bird in the colony, with a few exceptions, has four bands wrapped around their legs. One band is made of metal and is issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). It has an eight- or nine-digit number that uniquely identifies the bird, but because it’s so small using it to identify birds only works if the bird is in hand. So to identify birds, we use a trio of plastic color bands. They’re almost as reliable and they don’t require traumatizing the whole colony to take its census. More importantly, the color bands are the source of some truly ridiculous nicknames. We name birds by the abbreviations for their colors. For example, ‘B’ for blue and ‘Y’ for yellow, but exceptions include ‘K’ for black and ‘Gy’ for grey. Thus a bird with blue, orange, and grey is BOGy and a bird with red, white, and red is RWR. Particularly phonetic combinations get nicknames, which is how GKO (green- black-orange) becomes Gordon Gecko, GRK (green-red-black) becomes the Greek, and WWW (white-white-white) becomes the Internet.
Though the list of nicknames for nests and birds is extensive, I’m still trying to make additions. Unfortunately, all the obvious handles are taken, leaving me with only obscure pop culture references. For instance, I think only Terry Pratchett fans would appreciate calling orange-orange-black the Librarian. However, if you objected to last year’s 6-7 UCLA football team going to a bowl game, then I hope you consider calling white-black-yellow the Hilltopper a worthy consolation.
Posted by Max Czapansky: Ex-Microsoft employee wants to be a field biologist. Will he after his first season on Cooper Island?
COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — The birds arrived on Tuesday, I’m writing this on Friday, and during the interval George and I have been walking the colony, taking a census of the guillemots. Which birds have returned? Where are they nesting? With whom are they pairing? We record these data points in our field notebooks, and then later compile them in the breeding bird books for 2012. Even having done this for three days, I still worry that everything in my notes is incorrect. We identify birds by reading the color bands on their legs, but what if I’ve mistaken light blue for grey? Determining nest site and partner is trickier because it requires reading the bird’s behavior. Has yellow-green-green staked his claim at site T-04 or did he just need a breather and happened to be nearby? Did green-white-orange chase light green-orange-blue to rid himself of a rival or was it a lovers’ quarrel?
Even an amateur can see these two birds aren’t getting along.
Wondering whether I’ve correctly answered these questions is a great source of anxiety. Each time I read an observation aloud I expect George to furrow his brow and tell me, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Fortunately, more often than not he instead says, “I saw the same thing earlier,” or, even better, “That was the pair that bred there last year.” This isn’t a credit to my keen observational skills; rather it’s due to simply how relatable these birds are.
It’s impossible not to fall for the guillemots. Pairs of them sit together in front of their nest sites chattering back and forth, or they take an evening stroll together. They seem so attached to each other it’s unsurprising to discover each year around 85 percent of them find their way back to their partner and home. They have other anthropomorphic qualities as well. Guillemots tend to prefer walking to flying over short distances, so one often sees dozens of what appear to be tuxedo-clad inebriates toddling around the island. And they have their pride. I saw a bird, while walking about, trip in view of potential rivals. He immediately got to his feet and charged them, as if embarrassed to be a klutz.
There are many skills beyond identifying birds for me to learn while I’m here. Soon enough George and I will be capturing birds for banding and later we will be recording egg-laying data. Hopefully the guillemots will continue taking it easy on me.
Posted by Max Czapansky: Ex-Microsoft employee wants to be a field biologist. Will he after his first season on Cooper Island?
COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — “How long does it take to get to the island from here?” With that innocuous question, the final leg of my trip to Cooper Island began. I had flown from Seattle to Barrow via Anchorage and Fairbanks. After three days of staging our gear, the sleds were hitched to the snowmobiles and we were about to head east from Niqsurak across Elson Lagoon. This time of year, the shorefast ice is still over a meter thick. Later in the summer, transportation to and from the island is typically done by helicopter or, late enough in the season, boat.
“Oh, maybe a little over an hour,” Craig George responded. Craig is a wildlife biologist who studies, among other things, bowhead whales for the Department of Wildlife Management (DWM) in Barrow. He is also a good friend of George Divoky and wanted to join us for the trip out. I was to ride behind him on his Ski-doo while Billy Adams and Bobby Sarren (fellow DWM employees and friends of George’s) would pull the sleds. Three hours later, we finally reached Cooper Island — albeit on the wrong side — and the only thing wetter than my feet was our gear.
The trip started well enough. It was thrilling to be out on the ice for the first time, half expecting to see polar bears any second. We were progressing smoothly until we reached … the crack. The shorefast ice was breaking apart earlier than usual, leaving a two foot band of water to separate us from Cooper Island. We decided to turn north and see how far the crack extended. Unfortunately, this brought us right up alongside the barrier islands separating the lagoon from open ocean. Land, being darker than ice, absorbs more heat and accelerates the melt around it. That left us on, to put it mildly, poor quality ice. Our path continuously crossed a series of dips filled with slush. Entering them threw more icy water into my boots and leaving them gave us a jolt that nearly knocked me off my seat. In fact, at one point our snowmobile flipped on its side, though Craig was able to slow down enough so neither of us were hurt. Our detour took us five miles north, where we turned east out onto the open ocean. It was another five miles of jostling, soaking travel back south before we reached the opening to Cooper Island.
At this point, I was more than a little disheartened. My arms and legs were sore from holding on for dear life, my feet were inundated in ice water, and I had the nagging suspicion that our efforts to waterproof our gear had been in vain. However, reaching the opening between islands raised my spirits in an instant. In the distance, a strip of land came into view.
The cabin, standing ten feet tall, was easily visible breaking the horizon. Craig informed me we were within five miles of Cooper. Far from land, those last few miles were the smoothest sailing of the whole voyage. We encountered ice sheets stretching to infinity, seals slipping into the water as we passed, and eiders flying low beside us to avoid falcons — it was stunning! All told, it had taken us over three hours. Neither the exhaustion from the detour nor the discovery we would later make that our gear was, indeed, soaked could take anything away from that glorious last leg.
Now that we’re here on Cooper Island, our first priority is getting life support (shelter, power, communication) up and running. It turns out we’ve arrived before the guillemots, so there’s no rush to census the birds. I’ll check back in once they show up.
BARROW, ALASKA — If you ever have the opportunity to travel with George, you should go no matter what. I had so much fun learning about the Arctic through his stories, observations and friends in this amazing place. Walk into any store or restaurant or field office here and you cross paths with someone who knows George from his long history in Barrow. His research has focused on the Guillemots, but he knows so much about what is happening with other Arctic species as well as the physical changes in the Arctic Ocean. And the stories. So many great stories that I am beginning to think that George is one of the charismatic megafauna he talks about!
George, Cristina, and I finished putting together our science activity for children to experience how the summer sea ice changes are affecting the ability of Black Guillemots on Cooper Island to find food for their young. We presented it to the workshop group as we would to our Kindergarten classes. It was a hit when George modeled the activity by running back and forth across the room, collecting as many Arctic Cod as he could in thirty seconds! Cristina and I plan to teach it to our students in the fall and share experiences and observations between our classes. I leave this Arctic Ocean workshop full of ideas for how I can translate the current research I learned about into investigations for my students in Seattle.
I can’t believe our week is up and it is time to go home. I woke up to snow flurries this morning. Exciting only to folks who haven’t spent the winter in Alaska, I thought it made for a perfect last morning in the Arctic. At the airport here I am already planning how I can get back to Barrow!
BARROW, ALASKA — Well, it is midnight and even though I promised myself to go to bed earlier, I am not able to withstand the draw of the midnight sun. One more walk down to the pack ice to look for another group of Common Eiders, one more discussion about changing ocean salinity, one more look at bright blue skies and sunshine. How can I not?
I have really enjoyed the science talks at this workshop, from tracking bowhead whale populations, to using marine radars to follow ice moving offshore, to ocean ecosystems and their biological processes. In each Arctic Ocean research project talk, I see connections to investigations my students could do in the science lab. The data and the findings are inspirational for teaching young people about the Arctic Ocean.
We broke into small teams to take one concept from the research talks and create an investigation for students. In the picture below, George and I are working with Kindergarten teacher, Cristina Casillo, from Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska. Point Hope is a native Inupiaq village with a population of over 900 people and located 158 miles southwest of Barrow. We are working to create an activity about Black Guillemot biology for our classrooms.
BARROW, ALASKA — I’m Katie Morrison, a former research scientist and now an elementary school science teacher. I’m really excited to be a part of Friends of Cooper Island and help with education outreach to schools and communities. George’s Black Guillemot study is such an engaging story for leaners of all ages! This week George and I are in the Arctic participating in a workshop to create classroom materials about the Arctic Ocean ecosystem.
This is my first trip to Alaska and I can’t believe that I am so lucky to come all of the way to the Arctic. We had clear skies for all of our flights up and were treated to amazing views of inlets, glaciers, endless mountains, Denali, the Brooks range, the tundra and finally the pack ice. We are staying at the former naval research station (NARL) in Quonset huts. The pack ice is just a short walk away and it is hard to tell where the ice ends and sky begins.
We’re here for the Arctic Ocean Ecosystem Workshop to develop K-12 classroom materials based on current research, science standards, and the Inupiaq learning framework. Friday, we were welcomed by local elder Roy Nageak. He stressed the importance of collaboration between scientific research and Inupiaq traditions and talked about the need for children to feel connected to their environment.
Today we hear from several researchers about changing sea ice, physical and biological processes of the Arctic Ocean, and of course the Black Guillemots. Fortunately, we found some time to drive around and look for birds.
Workshop organized and sponsored by:
Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. (ARCUS)
Alaska Ocean Observation System (AOOS)
Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE)
North Pacific Research Board (NPRB)
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For nearly 40 years Dr. George Divoky has traveled to remote Cooper Island in the Arctic. Braving the elements and the occasional polar bear, his mission is to study the Black Guillemots — research which is contributing to the understanding of climate change on wildlife in Arctic.
Audio Slide Show: Interview with George
Penelope, originally from the landlocked state of Utah, somehow found her way to the Pacific coast and the unlikely world of seabird research. Her interest in seabirds began during her yearlong stint as a janitor at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
Penelope graduated from the University of Washington with a BS in Environmental Science and Resource Management and she has worked for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) project. During her time at COASST she also worked for the Friends of Cooper Island, seeing the numerical changes of the Arctic as she entered over 30 years of George Divoky’s data into Excel Spreadsheets.
In October of 2010 she made her way back to Antarctica, this time she left her mop and bucket behind, and worked as a Field Technician on a long-term penguin monitoring study. Currently she is working for Friends of Cooper Island and will, for the first time, be on Cooper Island putting in Polar Bear proof nest boxes and banding adult breeding birds.