Loss of Sea Ice Takes Its Toll on Seabirds

By George Divoky

Pierre-Loup Jan, Katie Morrison, George Divoky, and Maria Coryell-Martin monitoring changes to the colony in August 2019 on Cooper Island.

The positive signs of colony size and breeding effort of the Black Guillemots on Cooper Island in June were too good to last.

After very high hatching success, the decreased ice and increased water temperatures took their toll as parents were unable to find prey in the warm, ice-free waters. Rapidly shifting ocean temperatures provided some days of good growth, but currently only one third of chicks are still alive. As the mortality was unfolding, we shared it with a reporter from the Washington Post for an article describing the impacts of climate change in Alaska in 2019.

The author notes that, “The early retreat of sea ice from the Bering and Chukchi seas has led to a jump in sea surface temperatures, altering weather patterns and upending the lives of residents who typically depend on the ice cover for hunting and fishing. It’s also affecting native species, including seals and seabirds.” They go on to quote me describing the high rate of chick mortality from the loss of sea ice, which limits guillemots’ access to their preferred prey, Arctic cod.

Helping to monitor the changes that are rapidly occurring this summer are a Seattle science teacher, an expeditionary artist, and a French demographer. Pierre-Loup Jan is a population dynamics modeler from the Centre d’étude biologique de Chizé, a local branch of the French National Centre for Scientific Research. He is analyzing the Cooper Island database as part of the Sentinels of Sea Ice (SENSEI) project led by Christophe Barbraud and Yan Ropert-Coudert. The SENSEI project aims at fighting against the reheating of the poles which have drastic consequences on the sea ice.

On the island for the second time is Katie Morrison, board president for Friends of Cooper Island and an elementary school science educator in Seattle, WA. Maria Coryell-Martin, an expeditionary artist from Port Townsend, WA, is exploring the landscape and research of Cooper Island through watercolor sketches. Together, Katie and Maria are working on an interdisciplinary exhibit and educational materials.

Even in their short time on the island, they have witnessed dramatic changes and the impact of a rapidly melting Arctic.