A Little History

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 9, 2009 — This year, an ambitious “Around the Americas” expedition will attempt to have their sailboat, Ocean Watch, negotiate the Northwest Passage as part of their program to conduct research and also raise public awareness of the state of the oceans. They departed Seattle in early June and will circumnavigate both North and South America in 13 months. Ocean Watch is leaving Nome this week, and will be in Barrow on July 11. You can follow their progress at their website at http://aroundtheamericas.org. They plan on visiting Cooper Island on their way east through the Beaufort Sea, but the timing of that visit will depend on when the ice moves offshore.

Cooper Island, one of the Plover Islands, in fact owes its name to the most famous of the attempts to navigate the Northwest Passage. After the Franklin Expedition disappeared during an attempted westward transit of the Passage in 1845, there were many attempts to find Franklin’s two ships and crew. The H.M.S. Plover sailed to Point Barrow in hopes of finding Franklin as he exited into the Beaufort Sea.

During their search for Franklin, the Plover overwintered just east of Point Barrow, in back of the chain of barrier islands that extend eastward approximately 30 miles from the Point. The captain of the Plover named the island chain after his vessel, and during the winter walked over the ice to two of the islands. One of them, Iglurak — which in Inupiat means “island with a house on it” — the other was named “Cooper’s Island” after one of the ship’s officers.

Egg laying is now complete for all the species on the island and my next post will examine how the type and numbers of birds have changed in recent years.

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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.

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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.

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