Against all odds: a 2020 field season

In early spring, when the first evidence of the scale of the pandemic was becoming clear, many field biologists realized that restrictions or concerns about travel would prevent them from having a field season. The impact was especially bad for graduate students and early career researchers who had worked hard to obtain funding and prepare for the 2020 field season. It also was a major blow to those of us who have conducted continuous long-term studies requiring annual field work.

Friends of Cooper Island was impacted by the earliest stages of the pandemic when we had to cancel our annual Seattle event scheduled for March 17. We had planned to have Joe McNally, the photographer who was on the island in 2001, discuss his 2019 visit and the video he produced about the major changes that have occurred since his first visit. The video is available at this link.

In late March and early April, like almost all of those doing research in the Arctic, I was prepared to write off the 2020 field season. Given the concerns of traveling through towns or villages with vulnerable populations, I assumed I would not be flying north to Utqiagvik in 2020, as I have done for almost half a century. I was also aware that the loss of my field season was a small and minor consequence of the pandemic and during weeks of “lockdown” tried to concentrate on scientific papers being written with several collaborators using our long-term data sets from Cooper Island.

It thus came as a major surprise when a colleague at the North Slope Borough’s Dept. of Wildlife Management contacted me in April asking what my plans were for coming up this summer. Thanks to the efforts of both the Dept. of Wildlife Mgmt. and the borough’s Dept. of Search and Rescue, I am now in Utqiagvik, having had negative covid test results both in Seattle and here, and heading for my 47th summer on Cooper Island. While the assistance of friends and colleagues in Utqiagvik has always played a major role in maintaining the Cooper Island research, this year that support, and just as importantly encouragement, has made all the difference.

I want to thank the many supporters and followers of the Cooper Island research who have shown their appreciation for my efforts over the years, and the donors who were able and willing to financially support a field season before we knew it would be possible.

While the issue of climate change is currently receiving less attention due to more immediate social and economic disruptions, global temperatures continue to increase with major effects on Arctic sea ice now at a record low (image below). It is now all the more important to maintain one of the few data sets that has demonstrated the biological impact of decreased sea ice.

I hope you have a safe summer and I look forward to providing updates over the next two months from Iglurak (the Inupiat name for Cooper Island).


Webinar on Cooper Island documentary now streaming

The April 24th webinar with Joe McNally discussing his 2001 and 2019 visits to Cooper Island and the making of the documentary Watching the Earth Melt Away, is now available for on-demand online viewing at this link or clicking on the image below.

Many thanks to both Joe and PhotoShelter for telling the story of the long-term study on Cooper Island and informing the public about the rapidly changing Arctic.

WATCH: Q&A with Joe McNally About His Documentary “Watching the Earth Melt Away”

In this webinar, Joe talks about some of the most meaningful photos captured during his trips to Cooper Island and what it was like to come back and photograph the same location 18 years later.

Earth Day 2020

In honor of Earth Day 2020, Joe McNally and Photoshelter will be holding a webinar where Joe will discuss his 2001 and 2019 visits to Cooper Island, the photos and video he obtained during those visits and the importance of conservation photography in engaging and educating the public. We had planned to have Joe attend our annual Seattle update at Town Hall Seattle, which had to be cancelled due to the need for social distancing and are glad he is able to discuss his Cooper Island work in this webinar. You can register for the webinar at this link or view the full recording early next week at the Photoshelter website. The video Joe will be discussing can be viewed on YouTube at this link.

My long-term relationship with Alaskan seabirds began the same year as Earth Day. In April 1970, during my first year of graduate school, I attended events celebrating the first Earth Day and was full of optimism as society demonstrated a heightened environmental awareness. Later that year I made my first trip to Arctic Alaska, where, I conducted seabird observations from a Coast Guard icebreaker, censusing seabirds in waters offshore from the rapidly developing Prudhoe Bay oil field.

I, of course, had no idea that my internship at the Smithsonian Institution in the summer of 1970 would lead to me spending the next half century in Arctic Alaska.  Nor could I ever have imagined 45 of those years would be spent on a remote island studying the life history of an ice-associated seabird, Mandt’s Black Guillemot.  My review of seabird literature as part of my graduate studies, had made me extremely interested in the diverse ways seabird species have adapted to raising their young on land while being dependent on marine food sources. The colony of guillemots I discovered on Cooper Island in 1972 provided an ideal situation in which to study that phenomenon.

It would have been impossible to know – and would have been inconceivable at the time – that the region of the Arctic where I would be conducting a multi-decadal study, would be one of the most rapidly warming areas of the world in the next half century. Nor could I ever have known how the resulting changes in sea ice would affect my study species. A thriving colony of over 200 breeding pairs in the 1980s, most successfully raising young, would be reduced to less than 80 pairs by 2019, with most pairs unsuccessful due to the absence of the previously abundant ice-associated prey.

While we are currently focused on the corona virus and its impact on health and economic security, it is important to remember that the warming of our planet continues with NASA projecting that this could be the warmest year on record. The ongoing study on Cooper Island remains one of the few biological metrics of the impact of sea ice loss on marine ecosystems in the Arctic and it is important to maintain it as the Arctic continues to change. The melting of sea ice is continuing with the Arctic predicted to be free of ice in summer before mid-century, although models show a decrease in carbon emissions will reduce the frequency of ice-free summers. Optimistically our continued research will document the resilience of a species in response to unprecedented changes in its environment, allowing the Cooper Island colony to persist in an ice-free Arctic. Pessimistically, we could be recording the last days of the canary in the coal mine.

If there is a bright side to Earth Day 2020, with most of the world under lock down, it is that humans are being shown the consequences of not taking action on pressing societal issues – and may be able to address the issues that have warmed the plant over the last half century.

Friends of Cooper Island