Solitary scientist at the top of the world

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — The subtitle of Darcy Frey’s 2002 NY Times Magazine article on the early impacts of climate change seen on Cooper Island, referred to me as a “lonely scientist at the end of the earth”.  This wording was likely the work of an editor, who wanted to portray the “forlorn” qualities inherent in the word “lonely” and the phrase “end of the earth”.  A more accurate (but less romantic) wording would be a “solitary scientist at the top of the world”.  While it is true that I have spent weeks and months alone on the island without company, it is important to note that the Cooper Island research has benefitted greatly from a number of collaborators and coworkers who have played a major role in maintaining the fieldwork since 1975.

Penelope Chilton (read Penelope’s post: The adventure begins.), who left the island in Gary Quarles’ helicopter in late June, is the last in a line of over two dozen people who have helped check nests, band adults, and weigh chicks while both enjoying and enduring the realities of the Arctic supported by an “infrastructure” that, until recently, consisted of a small tent, a Coleman stove and lantern. Penelope’s three week stay on the island (in the relative luxury of a shared 8×12 foot cabin) demonstrated again how my experience on the island is enhanced by the camaraderie of an enthusiastic colleague. After forty years in the Arctic I still am awed by much of what I see and experience on the island, but my enjoyment of fieldwork is certainly enhanced by working with someone who is discovering their first black guillemot egg or close encounter with a Sabine’s gull defending its nest.


Penelope in front of the 8×12 foot cabin.

With few exceptions the people who have worked with me have been infatuated with birds and realized how unique it is to arrive on an island surrounded by pack ice where one could study in detail the life history of individual seabirds that spend the majority of their lifetime north of the Arctic Circle. Their appreciation of both the birds and the setting is important when dealing with the physical and emotional challenges of working at an isolated camp. While the 24 hours of sunlight serve to increase serotonin levels, facilitating harmonious social interactions, the nearly constant wind, freezing temperatures and minimal creature comforts can certainly increase stress hormones. These counteracting forces can result in an emotional rollercoaster ride. Maintaining perspective requires an emotional maturity that, with few exceptions, my coworkers have had.


George on Cooper Island. The island’s nearly constant wind, freezing temperatures and minimal creature comforts can certainly increase stress hormones.

During the course of my daily fieldwork there are constant reminders of the individuals who have contributed to the study. The nest sites that Maggie Ford and Tom Scharffenberger built in 1978 were only decommissioned last month when they gave way to the new polar bear proof nest cases. The large nest site that Buzz Haddow almost dropped on my head while I was weighing a chick in the 1990s was also recently retired. Bob Boekelheide’s efforts to protect  nest sites from a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) “clean up crew” in 1976 are still evident from the markers he attached to the sites. Every day I walk past the location where Evan deBourguignon and I realized that, unlike the preceding five bears we had seen that day, we were not going to back down a curious young polar bear and would have to abandon our camp (in darkness at 3 a.m.).


A black guillemot in front of one of the decommissioned nests.

Many of the Cooper Island field assistants have gone on to have careers in biological research, resource management and conservation while some have pursued other areas of interest and/or employment. A few have expressed an interest in coming back to visit Cooper Island and anyone who was out here before the turn of the century would be astonished at the changes. The beach has eroded a quarter mile at the site of our original campsite in the 1970s and 1980s. Dedicated monitors of Arctic tern chicks (including Karen Oakley, Katie Hirsch and Teya McElroy), when 75 pairs bred on the island all endured regular strikes in the head from parents defending their young, but now would likely be saddened to see the tern colony reduced to just a few pairs.  And everyone would be shocked to find that the vegetated “tundra patch”, that used to be home to a small number of breeding shorebirds and a diverse plant community, now supports 200 breeding black brant and their abundant young, who have covered the area with their droppings.

Brant eggs

A black brant nest with eggs.

Luckily for me, one of the field assistants who has expressed an interest in returning to the island is Penelope. In the next two months she will be working on data entry while in Seattle before heading to the Antarctic for her second season of research on penguins and skuas.

It would be excessive to name all of the people who have spent time with me on the island and it is probably simplest to say that they know who they are and I thank them for their help. If any of them are reading this and we have not communicated recently, I would love to hear from you and know that you are welcome to stop by the island any time.

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