Category Archives: An indicator of arctic change

Start of the 45th field season

Recent NASA satellite image showing Cooper Island 

Even after 44 years, preparing for the field season to study Black Guillemots on Cooper Island is a time of excitement and anticipation as I gather the gear and supplies needed to survive and conduct research for three months on a remote Arctic island.  This year the excitement was tempered with a high level of anxiety given last summer’s disastrous breeding season.  While the size of the colony has been decreasing since the 1990s, as the guillemots’ sea ice habitat has steadily dwindled, the 2018 breeding season was unique in that  1) the overwinter mortality of breeding birds was three times the long-term average, 2) one third of the returning pairs failed to lay eggs and 3) half of the pairs that did lay eggs abandoned them soon after laying. The result was a colony that in August had only 25 functioning breeding pairs – something hard to observe and process when one has a vivid memory of a 200+ pair colony in the late 1980s.

Back in Seattle I was still processing the data and the implications of the 2018 field season when the U.N. issued a report about the pace of global climate change with a separate report on the Arctic saying a 2-5oC temperature increase was locked in for the region even with major reductions in fossil fuel emissions. While the reports had the positive effect of finally having the media and public focus on the trends in and causes of climate change, along with my findings in 2018 they affected the way I viewed my long-term study.  Documenting the pace and magnitude of biological changes in the Arctic seemed all the more important.

I headed north to Utqiagvik (Barrow) in early June knowing that the guillemots had experienced another year with little sea ice in the traditional wintering area in the Bering Sea and that the Arctic Ocean off northern Alaska adjacent to their breeding colony had unprecedently low sea ice extent for early summer.  Conditions like those are bound to pose major difficulties for the Cooper Island Black Guillemots.  While I start the season with concern for the long-term trajectory of the colony, I see the 2019 field season as a unique opportunity to document the resilience and adaptability of one of the Arctic’s sea-ice obligate seabirds. I look forward to providing you updates as the breeding season progresses on this website, Proteus, our Twitter feed, and the Friends of Cooper Island Facebook page.

Long-term Data Collection Serves Many: Cooper Island study aids graduate students studying climate change

Graduate student Drew Sauve recently returned from Cooper Island. He describes his collaboration with George in this guest post.

The Black Guillemots on Cooper Island are one of many wild populations that are responding to climate change by changing when they lay their eggs. These Arctic seabirds want to lay their eggs as soon as the winter snow melts and spring begins, because their breeding season—from first access to a nest cavity to departure of chicks—is 80 days, an exceptionally long breeding period for a bird. Parent guillemots have to have their young ready to fly off to sea before fall snow accumulation begins to block entrances to nest cavities. In recent years, with sea ice retreating offshore in late summer, early breeding has the benefit of being able to provision young when the preferred prey of Arctic Cod is still readily available.

While there are decades of data that show spring snowmelt is occurring earlier in northern Alaska and, allowing guillemots to lay their eggs earlier, my research is focused on whether Black Guillemots are evolving to lay their eggs earlier.

Read the full post at Proteus.

Arctic Worries: Climate change impacts communities and wildlife in the Arctic

Science writer Jenny Woodman of Proteus writes about Cooper Island research and the current field season.

George Divoky frets–with good reason. In 2016, CNN Correspondent John D. Sutter called him the man who is watching the world melt. The description is as distressing as it is apt.

George sends us regular dispatches from a small field camp on Cooper Island, about 25 miles east of Utqiaġvik, where he has studied a colony of nesting Mandt’s Black Guillemots for the last 44 years. Since his work began in 1975, the research has morphed into one of the longest-running studies of seabirds, sea ice, and climate change.

Read the full post and latest update on the 2018 field season here.