Tag Archives: Arctic

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.

[POSTPONED] Annual Seattle Update – Tuesday March 17th

Watching the Arctic Melt Away

We regretfully have to postpone our annual Seattle update due to increasing concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus and our patrons’ health, including the recent decision by Town Hall Seattle to suspend in-person attendance for all events.

Reporting to our followers at our Seattle annual event is a yearly highlight for George. This is also Friends of Cooper Island’s main fundraising event for the year, with paying for the venue a major expenditure. We are postponing (rather than cancelling) in part to save some of our Town Hall rental, as well as to be able to share the events of last field season with all of our supporters. While we hope to be able to reschedule our event before the start of the 2020 field season – George’s 46th year on Cooper – we realize we may have to wait until next fall. An announcement about the rescheduled event will be posted to this website and sent to our mailing list. If you are not yet on our mailing list and want to be please email us at info@cooperisland.org.

Whenever our update and event can take place, we still plan on including a presentation by photographer, Joe McNally, who took the 2002 NY Times Magazine cover shot of me standing on sea ice just north Cooper Island.

Joe returned to Cooper Island this past July and retook his shot from 2001, but instead of George standing on sea ice that extended to the horizon, he was standing in water with no ice in sight. Joe will also be showing a video he produced about his 2019 visit.

Donor-supported climate change research and outreach has never been more important and we thank you for your interest and support of our work. We would be grateful for your usual support as we continue to prepare for the 2020 field season. Hoping to see many of you at our rescheduled event to share our recent findings from a melting Arctic.

An old friend returns for a new picture

This past summer the Cooper Island field camp was thankful to have a return visit from photographer Joe McNally. Joe has been taking photos longer than I have been studying Cooper Island Black Guillemots and his website shows both the quality and scope of his work. His visit in 2001 took place before we had a cabin and was for the purpose of obtaining photos for a New York Times Magazine story being written by Darcy Frey, who had visited the island earlier that year. Joe and I had a great time during his week on the island and have stayed in touch ever since.

In January 2002 I opened the Sunday NY Times to find the magazine cover was a photo Joe had taken of me standing just off Cooper Island’s North Beach in early July. Joe’s cover photo and Frey’s 12-thousand word story gave national prominence to what had been an obscure 27- year study of an Arctic seabird. More importantly, a national story about climate change was a rarity in 2002 and I have been told by many people that the article and Joe’s photo was what first made them aware of the realities of global warming.

Whenever Joe and I have chatted since his first visit, I have mentioned that should he return to Cooper Island, he would not find the island surrounded by ice as he did in 2001. During the almost two decades since his visit the pace of Arctic climate change has greatly increased as the region continues to warm. The loss of sea ice has resulted in the high mortality of Black Guillemot nestlings, as parents are unable to find their preferred ice-associated prey, and regular visits by polar bears, stranded on land as their sea ice habitat melts.

I have always hoped Joe might return to Cooper Island but told him that if he were to return and try to retake the cover photo I would now be standing in water and not on sea ice. Given Joe’s work schedule and international prominence I never thought he would be able to work in a return visit, but with the help of Nikon he arrived by boat in early July last summer bringing a film crew to document his attempt to retake the 2001 image of me standing on the ice.

The 2001 and 2019 images tell the story of Arctic climate change as much as my 45-year database on an Arctic seabird. Joe and his crew made a video documenting his recent visit and our efforts to get the 2019 image. The video has some great aerial shots of the island and also documents why Joe is such a great photographer. He is able to ignore the frigid waters sloshing into his boots while taking the shot of me standing in the ocean wearing hip-boots.

Can’t thank Joe enough for his continuing friendship and interest in my work. 18 years after his first visit he is still helping me tell the story of the Cooper Island Black Guillemots and the increasingly warmer Arctic.