The Edge of Civilization

Cooper Island, Alaska, Aug. 6, 2009 — Cooper Island is only 25 miles (as the guillemot flies) from the community of Barrow, the largest village on the Alaska’s North Slope. When the atmospherics are right one can see the inverted mirage of Barrow shimmering on the northwest horizon, and on calm days there is a low hum as the village’s generators, fueled by a small natural gas field a few miles out of town, provide power to the 4500 residents. These reminders that there is a town just over the horizon make me aware that my field camp is in a location that should not really be referred to as “remote”.

While there are daily visual and auditory reminders of Cooper’s proximity to a large native village, this summer’s issues in transporting critical equipment to the island are evidence that this sand and gravel spit is more inaccessible than remote – and that, surprisingly, its accessibility has decreased over the last three decades.

For the bulk of my time out here access to the island was by air, with airplanes and pilots available in Barrow from 1975 until the late 1990s. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Naval Arctic Research Lab (NARL) provided readily available and inexpensive logistical support to researchers working in the field across the North Slope. NARL was a product of “cold war” concerns with Russia, established after the end of WWII and shut down (and turned over to a native corporation) when détente was warming that war in the 1980s. NARL had a fleet of airplanes able to land on the driftwood-cleared beach section of the island that passed for a runway. Landing on sand and gravel substrates requires a “tail dragger” airplane, which has a tail wheel to reduce the chances of going “nose down”, and typically also has over-sized “tundra tires” for landing on irregular and soft surfaces. Even after NARL closed, there were still a number of air charter services in Barrow that had suitable aircraft for landing on the island. Inupiat families needed regular transportation to and from fish camps and summer cabins where river bars or a relatively dry section of tundra provided a “runway”.

This “golden age” of access to Cooper ended abruptly in the late 1990s when Barrow air services found the cost of insurance for off-runway “bush” landings to be prohibitive.

Getting out to the island in June suddenly meant going over the ice by snow machine or hitching a ride on a helicopter that happened to be heading east. Once on the island, the melting and breaking near shore ice prevents travel over the ice or in the water until mid-July, when “open water” is sufficient to allow safe boat travel. For the last half of the field season all travel is by boat – although a North Slope Borough helicopter can be used for an emergency. While in recent years the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management and Barrow Arctic Science Consortium have been extremely helpful in donating some transportation, budget cuts and other considerations have limited their ability to help.

While having planes and boats in Barrow has allowed access to Cooper Island annually for over three decades, it has been the interest and concern of Barrow residents who operate the planes and boats that have really allowed the field camp to persist through the years. For almost a decade from the mid 1980s until the mid 1990s, pilot Chuck Caldwell resupplied Cooper Island, first when he was working for a charter firm, later when he had his own air service, and finally with his private airplane. On one memorable evening, when I did not expect visitors, Chuck dropped in with a pizza from the just-opened pizza place in Barrow. He had been eating there with his family, and started wondering if a pizza could be kept warm long enough to get to Cooper Island. Being a pilot up for any challenge, Chuck was soon landing on Cooper’s sand and gravel with the first take-out pizza to ever arrive on this “remote” island. Still warm from being in its thermal take-out container, it was delicious.

Almost twenty years later, Lewis Brower, a great boat captain who has been one of our primary boat charters in recent years, made another unexpected pizza delivery — only this time by boat. Craig George, who has been a good friend during the last 30 years, is now a regular visitor in his boat, and frequently resupplies the island and transports personnel. My near daily radio checks with Craig on the VHF play a major role in making Cooper feel less isolated, if not more accessible.

The most recent example of how inaccessible the island has become was trying to replace a broken inverter for my power system. The inverter transforms the DC power generated by the wind generator and solar panels to AC power like that found in your house. When the old inverter inexplicably “died” in June I put in an urgent call to our electrical guru Jim Gamache to order a replacement. It took less than 24 hours to get the replacement inverter to Barrow from the lower 48, but took over two weeks to get it the last 25 miles out to the island.

The inverter made an impressive arrival on the island when it did get here, as it was brought out by the sailing vessel Ocean Watch at the beginning of the Northwest Passage leg of its Around the America’s trip. Three of the crew members were able to spend a few hours on the island. Read Herb McCormick’s account. While they didn’t bring me a take-out pizza from Barrow, they did bring groceries (I was happy to note that oranges are still being sold commercially and less happy to see that Pringles are still being manufactured), a care package from the Friends of Cooper Island “home base” in Seattle, and the long-awaited inverter.

It was unusual to have someone leave the island and head east, rather than make the short trip west back to Barrow. It was also unusual to think that when I next see Ocean Watch, ice conditions in Canada permitting, it will be in Seattle in mid-2010, when she will be returning after a cruise circumnavigating the Americas, which will take its crew to some truly remote locations.

Assuming, of course, I can get off the island and back to Seattle by then … So my thanks to the captain and crew of Ocean Watch, but also to all those who over the years have provided both the transportation and camaraderie needed to live on this barrier island at the edge of civilization.

Pink Feces – A Sign of Climate Change or Adaption?

Cooper Island, Alaska, Aug. 2, 2009 — My focus on the birds breeding (or trying to breed) on Cooper Island runs the risk of making it seem like the island and surrounding waters are important to a relatively limited avifauna. In reality, the island is on one of the major migratory pathways for birds breeding on the tundra of Alaska’s North Slope and the western Canadian Arctic. In July and August, after breeding is complete, large numbers of waterfowl, shorebirds and seabirds move to the near shore Beaufort Sea and then westward to Point Barrow before heading south through the Chukchi Sea to wintering grounds, for many south of the equator.

Some of these species — like the strings of eiders that are regularly seen from the island — pass by without stopping to feed or rest in the near shore. For a number of species, however, Point Barrow and the barrier islands to the east (including Cooper Island) are important feeding areas as they prepare to undertake major migrations. Adults that just completed breeding need to restore their fat while just fledged young need to both build up reserves and develop foraging skills. Oceanographic conditions in the waters north of Point Barrow and Cooper Island increase the abundance and availability of marine invertebrates in this region, including the crustaceans commonly referred to as “krill”. Krill are an important food for bowhead whales, who sieve it with their baleen plates. The abundance of krill in this region is one of the reasons Barrow is a whaling community and also why there are so many whale bones on Cooper Island. It is also the reason why I now can’t walk down the beach without having hundreds of gulls circling overhead.

While in past years I have regularly seen flocks of birds feeding on krill just offshore or on the beach, this year the feeding flocks have been exceptionally large and persistent. Starting about three weeks ago, flocks of Sabine’s gulls, Arctic terns, glaucous gulls and black-legged kittiwakes began to feed around the island, with groups of many hundreds of birds roosting on the beach in compact flocks between feeding bouts. They were later joined by phalaropes, sandpipers, jaegers and some waterfowl that walked the beaches feeding on krill washed up by the waves. The number of birds, and the noise they generate, has been truly impressive, with at least five thousand birds wheeling over and near the island as they finish feeding on one swarm of krill and move on to another. The efficiency of the flocks feeding on the beached krill is amazing as they clear thousands of the half-inch long invertebrates within a few hours.

Growth rates of guillemot chicks have been high for the past two weeks, and arctic cod has been the primary prey — surprising findings given the distance to the pack ice and my past observations of how ice retreat affects cod availability and chick growth. It turns out that the cod, and the guillemots that feed on them, are benefiting from the abundance of krill. Examination of fish dropped in the colony by parents has found cod stomachs full of krill. Additionally, parent birds are feeding on krill directly as evidenced by the splashes of pink feces around nests. The krill are benefitting parent guillemots directly, by providing them with prey and indirectly, by increasing the densities of fish for them to feed their young.

The next few weeks are critical for the guillemot nestlings as they approach the weight of adults and have large energy needs to grow, maintain weight and push out the flight feathers that will allow them to fly out to sea at 35 days of age. Should krill become less abundant as this summer progresses it will be interesting to see how fish composition and chick growth is affected. While I don’t have any way of measuring krill abundance near the island, I do have a few thousand gulls and terns that will be letting me know if there are still krill in the area.

It is observations like these that keep me coming back to Cooper Island year after year. If as ice retreats annual krill densities increase, Arctic cod or even some other fish species, could maintain high densities near the island and allow successful breeding in the absence of ice. This field season could be a preview of how the guillemot colony might persist through summers with no late summer ice — and an important reminder that one needs to remember that species will be adapting to — and not just be impacted by — climate change.

Polar Bear Update II

Cooper Island, Alaska, Aug. 3, 2009 — I was writing up the text for the “krill” last night and then there was a need to deal with a bear that had been sleeping on the north beach after coming in off the ocean. Clearly the cabin is the best (or worst) smelling thing on the island and bears always seem to head for camp after they wake up. I had to turn the bear around and then wait for it to walk off to the east before going to sleep.

I turned the bear around with a “cracker shell” that is fired from a shotgun and essentially has a firecracker like device which goes off near the bear. It did not scare this bear much since within 20 yards it slowed down and started going through driftwood looking for food. It ended up going to a grass patch where a bear had slept earlier in the week. I assumed this one would do the same, but instead it started eating the seed heads of the beach rye grass. After three to four minutes it moved on to another patch of grass where it did the same.

Friends of Cooper Island