In the early days of his field research, George Divoky slept in a tent, but retreating Arctic sea ice made Cooper Island more accessible to polar bears. In 2003, George installed a cabin and added an electric fence for protection. Snow seen in the photo above will provide additional drinking water during the season.
Cooper Island is 25 miles east of Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, in Alaska. In Iñupiaq — one of at least 20 Indigenous languages in Alaska and Canada — Utqiaġvik means a place to gather wild roots. It is the northernmost city in North America.
Cooper is a gravel and sand barrier island, only four miles long; it serves as a breeding ground for a small colony of Black Guillemots, which George has studied since 1975.
The Black Guillemots arrive in early June and eggs should be laid several weeks later. George speaks of the birds with an affection most people reserve for other humans.
When the December issue of Audubon Magazine hit the stands with an eye-catching image of one of his feathered friends, he was genuinely excited, pointing out that she had fledged in 1996 and been nesting there since 1999. Of her descendants, several have returned to the island as well. She has 24 grandchildren.
In Iñupiaq, the word for grandmother is akka.
George is eager to see who will return this year, and worried for the ones who might not.
This story is part of an ongoing series titled Arctic Change centered around George Divoky’s 44th field season studying Black Guillemots, sea ice, and climate change on a remote Arctic island off the coast of Alaska. To donate and support Divoky’s work on Cooper Island, visit the Friends of Cooper Island.
This post was updated on June 9.
Can These Seabirds Adapt Fast Enough to Survive a Melting Arctic? by Hannah Waters
Exit, Pursued By Bear by George Divoky
Barrow, Alaska, Changes Its Name Back To Its Original ‘Utqiagvik’ by Rebecca Hersher