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The Unpredictability of Ice

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 8, 2009 — Henry David Thoreau wrote that “Ice is a fit subject for contemplation” as he monitored the formation and melt of ice on Walden Pond in the mid 19th century. He had no idea how important monitoring, studying and contemplating Arctic sea ice would become in the late 20th and early 21st century, as the increasing annual retreat of the ice became one of the more dramatic and disturbing signs of changes in global climate.

When I first began my work on Cooper Island in the mid-1970s the near shore waters north of the island had a large amount of multi-year ice. The relatively high vertical relief of multi-year ice provided a dramatic counterpoint to the relatively featureless island as the size and angle of the shadows of the irregular pressure ridges responded to the movements of the 24-hour sun. As increased annual summer ice retreat resulted in extensive areas of first-year ice in the Arctic Basin, our view to the north is now primarily of flat featureless ice, which is aesthetically less appealing but is welcome when scanning for polar bears.

Cooper Island’s lack of a picturesque seascape is the least of the problems arising from the extensive first-year ice. Since first-year ice is thinner than multi-year, it melts faster and contributes to the increases in the pace and extent of summer Arctic ice retreat. For the black guillemots breeding on Cooper Island this means that the ice that supports Arctic cod, their preferred prey, can rapidly retreat from the island while they are feeding their nestlings. Watching the timing and extent of ice retreat this summer and its effects on guillemot breeding success will be the focus of my work for the next two months. Ice conditions near Point Barrow and Cooper Island can be seen at NASA/Goddard’s MODIS Rapid Response System.

The uncertainty of the timing of ice retreat from the Beaufort Sea coast is an issue for a number of human endeavors, as well as for Cooper Island’s black guillemots. During the development of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, the annual “sea lift” of equipment and even buildings would frequently get to Barrow and have to wait for the ice to pull offshore before making the run from Barrow. In 1975, when guillemots had high breeding success and lots of Arctic cod, the sea lift had to turn back since the Beaufort Sea never did become navigable before freezing up.

Adventurers and others wanting to traverse the Northwest Passage also have waited at Point Barrow for the ice to retreat — or not. A number of years ago, a Lindblad vessel spent a few weeks off the village of Barrow and finally had to head south with its disappointed tourist, when it became obvious that while the Arctic was becoming more accessible it was not becoming more predictable.

On Cooper Island

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 7, 2009 — I arrived at my field camp on June 15 having chartered a helicopter from Barrow, Alaska, 25 miles west of Cooper Island. The days just before the field season started were full of the typical mixture of excitement for the opportunity to return to this remote Arctic island coupled with the apprehension that comes from knowing that if some critical piece of equipment is left behind one would have to get by for weeks before resupply is possible. This year a critical piece of communications equipment needed to be repaired, which is the reason this is the first post from the island.

In late June and early July my daily field activities consist of taking a census of the colony to see if the birds that bred last year have survived the winter and retained the same nests and mates, and then conducting nest checks of the approximately 200 nests boxes on the island. This year egg-laying for black guillemots started on June 18 and is just coming to an end on July 2. The weather during the first week of egg-laying was unseasonably cold with temperatures below freezing on most nights and no higher than the mid-30s in the afternoon. Because guillemots lay a two-egg clutch and incubation does not start until the second egg is laid, typically three to four days after the first, early nest checks typically mean finding the first egg of a clutch sitting unattended on rocks or sand and exposed to subfreezing temperatures. Apparently all birds have the capacity to suspend early embryonic growth when eggs are chilled but most don’t regularly experience subfreezing temperatures, as do the black guillemots on Cooper Island. Now that egg-laying is complete, parent birds are constantly attending the eggs, which they will incubate for approximately 28 days before hatching.

The Arctic pack ice is still up against the north side of the island and breakup appears to be progressing more slowly than recent years, but I will know more about that by my next post.

Depending on Wind and Sun

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 25, 2009 — People frequently mention to me that summer in the Arctic must be really exhilarating because of the “24 hours of daylight”. While this is true, less well known is that the “24 hours of wind” can make living at this latitude somewhat of a chore, no matter how much daylight one experiences. On Alaska’s arctic coast a rather constant wind blows from the northeast during almost all months, maintained by a high pressure system sitting over the Beaufort Sea. This summer has seen winds of strength and duration that are surprising even to Barrow natives, who have had limited opportunities to boat but are finding it good for drying recently harvested caribou on their drying racks.

For me the wind is part of the reality on Cooper Island and one works with it and around it on a regular basis. Guillemot nest sites that need to be lifted are approached from the west side, so they do not catch the wind and flip over. I census from east to west, to avoid having the wind in my face during observations. During our tenting days, the orientation of the tents and windbreaks were dictated by the northeast wind. We placed plywood windbreaks on the northeast side of the tents and the wind would keep them upright for weeks before they fell during one of the rare periods of calm. For the past eight years, however, I have come to enjoy the regular wind, since it means we will have power, from the wind generator first installed in 2002.

Until rather recently, the only need for electrical power on the island was the operation of a small VHF radio. to communicate with friends and colleagues in Barrow.I brought out two or three charged 12V batteries at the beginning of the field season for that purpose, and communications were infrequent and short to save battery power. In the mid-1980s, we purchased some small solar panels, a major upgrade of the island’s infrastructure, but one that did not allow us to charge batteries in the cloudy and shorter days of August — a time when communication is critical because of storms and, recently, bears.

In 2002 we invested in a wind generator (a Southwest Power Air-X), which allowed us to meet the increasing energy demands of the computers, digital cameras, and (beginning in 2003) a satellite phone that have quickly become part of island life. Now, in combination with some recently acquired solar panels, we are able to generate power in almost all weather and light conditions. While for the first few years of this century I simply charged 12V batteries at the base of the wind generator and brought them back to the cabin, since 2005 we have had a battery bank and inverter. With the help of the “furthest north.” 100-yard extension cord, this allows us to have AC power and electric lights in the cabin. A great thing when you want light in late August, after the sun finally goes down, since the thing that just went bump in the night might be a polar bear.

Many field camps in the Arctic (even those of climate change scientists) still rely on drums of fuel to run gasoline generators for camp maintenance. Being able to meet all of our electricity needs through solar and wind power has been very satisfying. However, this summer there has been a minor glitch. Shortly after setting up the power system, I found the inverter had not survived the winter in the cabin. This necessitated a call to my Seattle neighbor and Friends of Cooper Island’s electrical guru, Jim Gamache, who dispatched a new inverter to Barrow. Now, ironically, the only thing stopping the inverter from getting the 25 miles to Cooper Island is the wind, which has been near or above 20 mph for most of the past two weeks. The sailing vessel Ocean Watch, which has been anchored off of Barrow the past week waiting for the opportunity to continue their Northwest Passage (you can monitor their progress at Around the Americas) hopes to drop it off as they pass east on their expedition. Until then I will be carrying 12V batteries to and from the cabin — a good way to be well aware of just how much energy I am using. People would be much more sensitive to their energy demands if every day they had to lug it from its source back to their house.