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A Visit From a French Demographer

Thanks to our participation in the international Sentinels of Sea Ice (SENSEI) project, this summer the Cooper Island field camp was visited by Pierre-Loup Jan, the post-doc analyzing the Cooper Island demographic data set. After 44 years of sharing the island with a seabird with a French name (“guillemot” is the diminutive of Guillaume – the French version of “William) it was fitting to have a French researcher on the island with me.

We are very fortunate to have Pierre-Loup and his colleagues in France collaborating with us. He was a welcome addition to the 2019 field camp as he provided assistance, insights and humor during a summer when all were needed. His musings about his time on the island are below.

My impressions and observations of Cooper Island

I remember that the first day I met George, I was immediately impressed by his massive, long-term data. It was in the French countryside, in a wildlife biology lab in the center of France with so few towns around that you could consider it as remote as Cooper Island, only with a bathroom. This place was about to become my home but I was still exploring it at that time, freshly hired as a modeler to investigate the population dynamic of black guillemots. To be fair, the data by itself was not as impressive as the story behind it, and I was really excited to meet someone like George, who spent three months a year, for the past 45 years, in an island of the Arctic Ocean. I was even more excited when the same man invited me to come with him the next field season, which is the kind of opportunity you don’t have every day when you are a modeler (which means I spend most of my time processing tables of data to obtain neat plots and curves on a computer).

Pierre-Loup Jan on Cooper Island

Long story short, 9 months, two trains, three planes, and one boat later, I set my foot on Cooper Island, ecstatic to see with my own eyes the colony but also anxious about its health: sea ice retreat had reached a level never seen before two years, and I wasn’t sure how the birds would handle this summer.
Saying that the Cooper Island colony is one of the most beautiful guillemot colonies would be an obvious lie: it’s totally flat, for some reason some guy left black and grey suitcases everywhere, and it seems that previous buildings were just blown up by the navy before they left. However, Cooper Island is undoubtedly one of the best colonies to observe and understand the lifestyle of marine birds. I had read about the birds and, of course, discussed a lot about them with George before coming to the island. But nothing can beat the fact of seeing them and, instead of being lost in a complex and messy aggregate of rocks and cavities, even someone as unfamiliar to fieldwork as me could easily distinguish each nest, which were like many little houses with parents coming back after fishing. And with that, everything I was told about their behavior and all of the data I had been seeing on my computer screen made much more sense to me. I could directly observe with my own eyes the nest fidelity of the couple, the queuing birds waiting for an opportunity, the feeding of chicks and the way their weights change while growing.

Two of the three thousand birds in the data set that Pierre-Loup is analyzing

I hope that, at this point of the story, you don’t perceive me to be a geeky scientist spending his days looking at bird data on a computer. Nothing could be more wrong, because I also look at climate data. Particularly sea ice cover, giving the utmost importance of this area for the feeding of black guillemot. Unfortunately, I couldn’t observe it with my own eyes: the ocean around the island was completely ice free. Liquid water all around the island, as far as the eye can see, very different to some of the early pictures George took from the island. But data doesn’t lie, and the current sea ice cover dynamic made me expect this, the same way I expected what would happen during the period of chick feeding: breeders were not able to feed their chicks appropriately, and 75% of them died of starvation while I was monitoring them with George. It was truly heartbreaking to open a nest box just to find the bodies of chicks that could not be fed in time. Living this experience definitely strengthened my resolve to show how climate change affects wildlife. The long-term existence of this colony seems more and more uncertain every year, but at least studying them gives us the best opportunity to understand, warn, educate, and hopefully prevent what is planned to be the most massive lost in biodiversity since humans first wandered the earth.

Coming to Cooper Island was not just beneficial for my work: it was also an astounding experience. The island was way bigger than what I thought: I guess it is always complicated to appreciate distance and area when looking at maps and pictures. I kind of expected it to be limited to the guillemot colony, but this gravel bar in the middle of the arctic ocean has so much more to give! I was amazed by the diversity of birds I was able to see there, and took as many pictures as I could to be sure to make my ornithologist colleagues jealous (before asking them the names of the bird species). Of course, birds are not my #1 bragging material: I was welcomed by the sight of polar bears on the first morning, and had the pleasure to see three more of these animals during my stay. The size of those majestic beasts was breathtaking and, unlike my companions on the island, I couldn’t wait to see the next one. One could say that looking at them walking along the beach at a safe distance behind an electrical fence is not really bragging material, but It all depends on how you tell the story.

A polar bear resting near two nest cases protecting Black Guillemot nestlings.

The island being bigger also means that It was not all sands and rock, and I was surprised to find a wide area of tundra on it. I really enjoyed walking in this peaceful green place which made me think how the very first terrestrial landscape probably looked. I spent several hours on the tundra patch, looking at mosses and grasses that grew under the arctic climatic condition, surviving on the few nutrients they could get on this isolated island. As the famous Dr. Ian Malcolm would say: “Life finds a way”.

Aerial view of Cooper Island. Photo by Gary Braasch

Living on the island comes with its challenges of course, and the wind and rain doesn’t make it any easier. Fortunately, George’s hospitality and companionship make up for it, and the hot drinks and warm meals that waited for us in the cabin made the fieldwork bearable under any weather. Meals and cocoa breaks (I don’t drink coffee) were also great opportunities to share stories with people on the island, and gave me the chance to spend time with truly inspiring people, not only George but also Catherine Smith and Katie Morrison, who are doing an amazing work with the Friends of Cooper Island nonprofit, and Maria Coryell-Martin, an expeditionary artist that produced exceptional drawings of the island wildlife and landscape. The downside of those times were the occasional harassment by George, who liked particularly to make jokes about me being a youngster and a Frenchman. Of course, I had the courtesy to let it slide without responding: He is cranky, like most old people, and at times can lack tact, as many Americans do. Joking aside, interacting with these people added a human dimension to my travel experience, and I headed back to France with great memories in my head and new contacts on my phone. I will now do my best to make the most of it for what comes next. As they say in France :

“George ne parle pas le français et va certainement croire que je dis du mal de lui vu que son nom est au début de la phrase. C’était vraiment une superbe expérience.”

Pierre-Loup JAN

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.

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.