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Cooper Island Research Part of SENSEI: Sentinels of the Sea Ice

In 2015 Christophe Barbraud of the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé began assisting us with the analysis of the four-decade demographic database we have obtained from the Cooper Island Black Guillemot colony.  Christophe is a highly respected avian demographer whose study species include the Snow Petrel, an ice-obligate Antarctic seabird, as well as a number of other seabirds.  We were fortunate to have him appreciate the potential and uniqueness of our long-term databases and show an interest in our work.

Our collaboration has led to the Cooper Island Black Guillemot study being part of the recently initiated project Sentinels of the Sea Ice (SENSEI) funded by the BNP Paribas Foundation. Their Climate Initiative program funds work that will improve our understanding of climate change, inform and mobilize citizens and, ultimately,  assist in political decisions and solutions.   While our participation in SENSEI will not assist us with the logistics of our field season and maintaining the long-term database, it will greatly facilitate data analysis and outreach efforts.

Comprised of 13 teams of researchers from six countries, the project will assess recent and ongoing responses of ice-associated seabirds and seals to changes in Arctic and Antarctic sea ice. The  “sentinel species”  being studied other than the Black Guillemot are the Thick-billed Murre, Black-legged Kittiwake and Hooded Seal in the Arctic and  Snow Petrel,  Adélie penguin, Weddell Seal and Elephant Seal in the Antarctic.  The project’s official website has background on the study species, researchers and plans – including development of an educational platform in 2018 that will promote the scientific and conservation aspects of the project and is being developed with Luc Jacquet, who directed March of the Penguins.

BNP Paribas webpage devoted to the project  provides background and why they chose to fund SENSEI as part of their effort to address climate change.  The site includes a video (above ) with a great animated cartoon Black Guillemot –  who seems unaware that some might find him less charismatic than the ever-popular penguin.

Last month I visited Christophe and Yan Ropert-Coudert, the project’s other Principal Investigator, at their research center in Chizé, France to discuss the  role of the Cooper Island research in the project and outline strategies for analyzing our 43 years of data.  Will be posting more about this exciting opportunity as our plans develop.

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Canary in the Climate Mine: Arctic Seabird’s Future Is on Thin Ice

Oceans Deeply  recently had a story about our work and the poor 2017 breeding season after an October interview with George Divoky.   Oceans Deeply is part of News Deeply  – an “award-winning new media company dedicated to covering the world’s most important and underreported stories.”

The story was written  by Jessica Leber and illustrated with photos by Joe McNally, who visited the island in 2001 to obtain images for Darcy Frey’s New York Times magazine article on the early effects of climate change being seen at the Black Guillemot colony.

jm 02Joe McNally/Getty Images

The Oceans Deeply story also contains information from the online video of George’s talk to the Oceans17 conference,  held by the Marine Technology Society and the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society, and conversations with our collaborators on the  SENSEI (SENtinels of SEa Ice) project looking at behavioral and demographic responses of seabirds and seals to changes in sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic.

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June 2017 – The Arctic continues to surprise

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. For the past 42 years I have had a front row seat on Cooper Island off northern Alaska studying the Black Guillemot, a high Arctic seabird that is responding to the earlier snow melt and diminishing summer sea ice cover. Early melting of snow had allowed the birds to breed as much as two weeks earlier than they did in the 1970s, which facilitated a major increase in the size of the colony in the 1980s. But increasing warmth after 1990 has decreased breeding success by reducing the extent of summer sea ice near the island and so the availability of Arctic cod, the preferred prey of guillemots.

Egg laying was so early in 2015 and 2016, with first eggs in the colony on 8 and 10 June respectively – see last year’s post The Earliest Year – that I arrived on the island those years just as the first eggs were being laid. Having recorded the first egg in the colony since 1975, I didn’t want to arrive late this year so, based on date of breeding initiation in the past two years, I flew to Barrow (Utqiagvik) on the first of June, thinking I would go out to Cooper Island a day or two later. However, unlike the past two years, snowmelt in Barrow was not early —it was extremely late. Snow at the NOAA station just outside Barrow was the latest since 1988, with snow disappearing on June 18th – compared to 2016 when melt occurred on May 15th. For data and discussion of these years, see Drivers and environmental responses to the changing annual snow cycle of northern Alaska

Satellite images of northernmost Alaska on June 11, 2016, and June 11, 2017.
Satellite images of northernmost Alaska on June 11, 2016, and June 11, 2017. MODIS images obtained from NASA Worldview

Knowing that the guillemots’ arrival on the island, as well as egg laying, is dependent on snowmelt, I waited until June 14th to fly out to the colony. As we circled the island before landing I saw it was surrounded by sea ice as far as the eye could see. There were snowdrifts over half of the island, including a major drift surrounding my cabin. Over the winter I had filled the cabin, as usual, with most of field gear I need to survive on the island for the three summer months of the field season, and unpacking occupies my first 2-3 days in the field. This year all items had to be taken not just out of the cabin but to the edge of the snowdrift. The upside of such a large snowdrift is that it will supply water for the camp for much of the summer when put into plastic containers to melt.


The snow drift around the cabin on Cooper Island

Snowmelt on the island proceeded slowly in June and the first guillemot egg in the colony was laid on June 23rd, almost two weeks later than the past two years and maintaining the high correlation between Barrow snowmelt and guillemot breeding phenology.

Trends and correlation between Barrow snowmelt and guillemot breeding phenology.
Trends and correlation between Barrow snowmelt and guillemot breeding phenology.

In contrast to this abundance of late snow on the island in June, sea ice off northern Alaska (and throughout most of the Arctic) was at record lows for the month . The large mass of shorefast ice that surrounded Cooper Island last month is currently breaking up and once gone, the distance from the island to sea ice will be large and will increase as the ice continues to melt and retreat in July and August.

The combination of late snowmelt and early sea ice melt could have major effects on this year’s breeding success. Parent guillemots will be feeding nestlings later than in recent years, late July to early September, and Arctic cod, the preferred prey of the guillemots, will be unavailable should sea ice reduction proceed as expected. Currently, Arctic sea reduction is on a trajectory to match the record low September extent of 2012: Arctic Sea Ice Extent .

MODIS satellite image of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
July 12, 2017, MODIS satellite image of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. This false-color composite is shown to help distinguish clouds (more white) from sea ice (more blue). Open ocean is black.

The disparity between this year’s extremely late snow melt and early sea ice melt and retreat has been a surprise and a clear example of the breadth of atmospheric and oceanographic factors that affect the environment of guillemots. Egg laying in the colony has just ended and parent birds are now incubating their eggs, which they do for 28 days. When young start hatching in late July, guillemot parents will likely be foraging for fish in near-ice-free waters. Their ability to find suitable and sufficient prey to successfully raise their young will provide insights into how the species will adapt and how the colony will maintain itself as summer sea ice continues to decrease in future years.

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