June 19, 2018, after several weather-related delays, Search and Rescue pilots transported George and his gear to Cooper Island. His cabin is packed floor to ceiling with supplies stored over the winter, and he arrived with 800 pounds of equipment to support his 44th season studying Arctic seabirds.
While the Arctic has experienced back-to-back record-breaking years of warming, Utqiaġvik and North Slope of Alaska encountered unusually cold weather and snowfall this spring. According to George, he hasn’t seen conditions like this since the 1970s.
He predicts the late snowmelt will make this season particularly difficult for his Black Guillemots, who are already struggling to adapt to an ecosystem imperiled by climate change.
The delayed breeding season means the parents will have to fly farther to reach retreating sea ice in order find food that is ideal for guillemot chicks.
The longer distance means the parents expend more energy, which is a precious commodity for seabirds. In Far from Land, Michael Brooke writes, “Natural selection will favour individuals which do not imperil their own long-term chances of survival by recklessly over-investing in any single year’s offspring.” Brooke adds that it is better to forgo a single year’s offspring in the hopes of future generations of potential chicks, because seabirds like albatross and guillemots tend to lay small clutches of eggs. The Cooper Island birds typically lay two eggs each year.
Based on previous year’s data collected via geolocators George uses to track the birds, he thinks they’ve been in Nuvuk for the last month. Also known as Point Barrow, this headland is about nine miles east of Utqiaġvik. The guillemots are waiting for the snow to melt, George says.
“Snowmelt at NOAA’s Barrow Observatory typically occurs about a week before egg laying,” George noted on social media. “Female guillemots don’t ovulate until snowmelt allows access to the nest cavity.”
Once George sets up camp — which is no small feat alone in freezing temperatures — he’ll be sending us regular updates via satellite, which we will be sharing here. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest news and Arctic insights.
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.
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