November 22, 2017
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Canary in the Climate Mine: Arctic Seabird’s Future Is on Thin Ice

Alone on a remote northern Alaska island, biologist George Divoky has been monitoring a population of sea ice-dependent black guillemots for four decades. Now he fears he’s watching the colony in a slow-motion collapse as temperatures rise and its prey disappears.

by Jessica Leber

One of the Arctic’s most important storytellers in the age of climate change can now foresee how the story might end.

Since 1975, when seabird biologist George Divoky discovered black guillemots nesting on Cooper Island, an uninhabited strip of land 5 miles (8km) offshore near Utqiagvik (Barrow), Alaska, he has returned every summer to observe them. For years, he’s watched the colony decline. Now he’s worried about its collapse.

Global warming is a story built around data, small and fluctuating environmental changes that add up to a bigger picture over decades. The world accepted that the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration was increasing only after Charles Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography began taking consistent measurements in the 1950s, barely scraping together enough funds at first for work that is foundational today.

In the more than 40 summers that Divoky, a researcher who received a PhD at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has spent on Cooper Island, alone in a tent and later in a cabin, he was also cobbling together a global-warming narrative, although he didn’t know it for a long time. He had federal funding until 1981, but he was so fascinated by the birds he continued going back, paying the $2,000 cost of his annual expeditions in the early years with a few small grants and logistical support. “I was just curious and self-indulgent enough to go out every summer and leave a job or leave a relationship, just to keep it going,” he said.

He’d picked an ideal species and time to begin. Scientists studying climate change often look to species that are indicators of broader environmental shifts, such as polar bears that depend on sea ice or butterflies that time their migrations to seasons. These are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, species whose health directly reflects that of a complex ecosystem that is harder to observe. Through his long-term data, Divoky’s guillemots – a top predator in the marine ecosystem that depends on nearby summer sea ice – are indicators of the fundamental shifts in the Arctic Ocean’s ecology.

“We don’t have many good stories for the Arctic, and George has pulled together an important one,” said Kenneth Dunton, a marine science researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who has worked nearby for decades studying Beaufort Sea kelp bed ecosystems.

Unlike other seabirds in the region, black guillemots – diving birds that feed on nearshore fish – migrate only short distances south in the winter and spend their whole lives in the Arctic. On the island, Divoky, with some help from assistants, spent this summer weighing chicks every day, tagging the birds with geo-locators to track their movements in winter and fitting them with temperature-depth recorders that monitor diving behavior.

Black guillemots, which weigh about a pound and grow to around a foot in length, begin laying eggs timed to the summer snowmelt, so for years, earlier melt lengthened their nesting window and allowed them to thrive on Cooper Island. But in the last two decades, Divoky has watched the birds struggling. Their main food source – Arctic cod that live in cool waters below 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit) – has gradually become scarce as sea surface temperatures have increased, and now parents feed chicks mostly on sculpin, a bony fish that is harder for them to digest quickly enough to stay nourished.

Polar bears arrived in the early 2000s. Trapped for the summer on Cooper Island by retreating sea ice, they killed nestlings (and forced Divoky to build his cabin as well as protective housing for the guillemot nests). Horned puffins, a sub-Arctic species, also began arriving and competing for nests. As the summer sea ice has retreated farther offshore, guillemot parents have had to expend more energy to hunt prey to feed their hungry chicks every year. “Their foraging was no longer Arctic – it had become sub-Arctic,” Divoky said.

In 1989, he had counted 200 nesting pairs. By last year, it had decreased to 100. This past summer, with only 85 nesting pairs returning in June, the outlook became more dire. A far more substantial number than usual had died over the winter.

Even more unprecedented, he said, was the lack of “immigrants” to the colony dropping by to replace them, indicating to Divoky that other guillemot populations in the Arctic are similarly struggling – though survey data elsewhere is scarce – and that Cooper Island is no longer an attractive breeding ground. Also concerning was that for the first time, many females didn’t even lay eggs. With the waters north of Cooper Island warmer than ever, many of the chicks that hatched began dying by late summer. Ultimately, only one in three survived, far below the numbers needed to maintain the colony’s population in the long term.

“There’s something changing with the carrying capacity of the Arctic,” Divoky said. “It basically can’t support as many guillemots as it used to. I’m really concerned now just how quickly things might go downhill.”

For his passion project, Divoky, 72, has received more attention than most seabird biologists. In 2002, the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy cover story titled “George Divoky’s Planet,” and this was before climate change had affected the colony much. He is a bit bemused that his work seems sexy now, but he understands it’s because he was collecting data before anyone cared.

“There’s six people in the world who really care about black guillemots,” he told an audience at a Marine Technology Society meeting recently. “Three of them don’t like me very much. But everyone cares about the world’s oceans.”

Yet it’s still incredibly hard to fund the kind of research that has led to Divoky’s recognition. (He eventually launched a nonprofit, Friends of Cooper Island, to more formally support his work.) The challenge, he said, is that academia pushes researchers toward cutting-edge science rather than collecting the same monitoring data every year, and governments tend to fund studies around whatever is the latest crisis. Divoky has regularly published on his guillemot work, especially more recently, but for most of his career, he spent his time away from Cooper Island on other academic Arctic research.

Today, as the Arctic changes more quickly than any other region on the planet, climate change is now the biggest crisis, and the importance of long-term monitoring is more recognized, despite its high cost. This year, the University of Texas’ Dunton beat out dozens of proposals elsewhere to launch an ecological monitoring project for Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coastline, east of Cooper Island, that will receive rare, ongoing funding from the National Science Foundation. Even though this area abuts the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Dunton said there’s been little to no study there for decades.

In an attempt to learn more about the Arctic’s key indicator species, Divoky’s project is also receiving more support in academia. His data set will become part of Sentinels of the Sea Ice, a new three-year study supported by the French foundation BNP Paribas, the French Polar Institute Paul-Emile Victor and other partners. The project seeks to formally define indicator, or sentinel, species that reflect changing sea ice conditions and should be monitored long-term. Through the funding, a postdoctoral fellow will work with Divoky to analyze demographic patterns in his data set and develop new tracking tools to monitor the biology of species such as guillemots and their surrounding environment.

This summer, the sea ice north of Cooper Island broke up earlier. (Courtesy of George Divoky)

“Long-term data are rare, whether we are talking about the Arctic or any other places in the world,” Yan Ropert-Coudert, co-principal investigator of the project, said in an email. “Without a long-term view, we may have interpret wrongly signals that make only sense when viewed over several seasons.”

Divoky agrees, in that he hopes this summer was just an unusually bad season for Cooper Island’s black guillemots. Next summer’s nesting will be crucial for the colony’s future, he said. The few breeding pairs that managed to feed and fledge two young this summer, as many used to in the past, bring Divoky hope that some tough birds will be fit to adapt to ecosystem shifts.

While Divoky stays mostly upbeat when he’s isolated on Cooper Island, it’s harder when he returns to his own winter home in Seattle, Washington, as he did last month, and sees cars stuck in traffic for the first time in awhile. “You realize: Everyone feels that they need a metal box and four wheels that they can move around on and that it burns fossil fuels,” he said. “You think, this isn’t a good system … this isn’t going to work at this level of carbon footprint.”

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