Saturday, June 19, 2010

Barrow, Alaska 71.30 N

Arrived in the land of the midnight sun. What a strange experience - no matter what the hour it feels like it's mid afternoon. The land is flat and treeless - views of tundra or icy Arctic Ocean (the Chukchi Sea). It has a stark beauty.

The airport was an interesting experience - one room serves as the only gate plus baggage claim. The place was wall to wall people, not because the flight was crowded but because locals have supplies shipped in so whole families were there to pick up everything from toilet paper, to dog food, to dogs!

Picked up our rental truck - a 6 seater pickup (for 7 of us) with a broken windshield. The boys were anxious to get their turn to ride in the back, despite 34ยบ temps. and gusty winds. They loved it!

We're staying at the NARL hotel where the word hotel has the loosest interpretation possible. It's a dorm for scientists doing research facilitated by BASC (Barrow Arctic Science Consortium). Of course the first scientist I meet in the hotel is not only from Ohio, not only from UC, but is someone I met several years ago when I contacted him to put together a weather workshop for teachers. It's an odd feeling to turn a corner in Barrow, Alaska and see a face that gives you that "I think I know you" feeling.

Started our first full day with birding. Jenny, Scott, Elliot, and Michael enjoyed bouncing over dirt roads in the bed of the truck. Saw 20 or 30 species including Snowy Owls, Red Phalaropes, Yellow-billed Loons, and the grand prize, the endangered Steller's Eider. Dave and Michael both did happy dances when we got this one. It is a big life bird. Michael and Elliot are happy to be getting an early start getting life birds!

Back at BASC we meet with 2 scientists doing arctic research. I won't even say where both are from but it starts and ends with O and has hi in the middle. Imagine that. The first guy, Noah Ashley, is researching circadian rhythms in birds (Lapland Longspurs I think). Some species maintain a 24 hour rhythm during the dark winters/ light summers while others do not. Noah is trying to find out what environmental cues are used by birds who maintain the 24 hour rhythm. So far he's tested light intensity and color temperatures but birds did not entrain to either of these in the lab.

George Divoky is a real charachter with wild hair and a personality to match. George documents climate change by studying seabirds. He helped a Black Guillemot population get established on Cooper Island in the Chukchi Sea. A few nesting pair were living in crates left behind by the Navy, so George added more nest boxes to increase the population size sufficiently to use it for study. In the 40 or so years that birds have been there a lot has changed - due to climate change, specifically ocean ice melting earlier and reforming later in the summer.
Guillemot's were first able to inhabit Cooper Island in the 60's because the arctic summer had lengthened to 80 days - the amount of time they need to nest and raise young. With the warming climate, summer continued (continues - now 140 days!) to lengthen and in the 80s Horned Puffins moved up from the subarctic and began competing with guillemots for nest cavities. Puffins destroy the guillemots' eggs. By the mid 90s ice was melting earlier in the season and therefore retreating further from shore over the course of summer. Guillemots feed on cod which feed on zooplankton beneath the ice. A lack of ice means shifting to a new food source - subarctic fish that moved into the area and are much less nutritious. Brood reduction is the result with alpha chicks attacking beta chicks in competition for food. In addition to this stress, polar bears, unable to reach the ice in late summer (which they need as they hunt for seal) started visiting the island in 2002. They flip nests and eat the birds though they get few calories from them. In 2009 180 chicks hatched. 89 were killed by puffins. 90 killed by polar bears. One survived. In George's words the situation on the island is "chaos... [it] teaches me about climate change in a way that's visceral". He tried to describe how it feels to have so much invested in this research (including emotionally) and then "any interesting story ends with 'and the bear comes along and eats them' ". Hopefully his own story won't end that way as it has become quite dangerous on the island.

George was very generous to spend so much time with us. He is quite the busy and fascinating guy. There is an article and future book about his work, "George Divoky's Planet". He's been on Letterman and the BBC is coming to film his work next week. Despite this he is very happy to work with our bird education collaborative to bring his experiment to Seven Hills. We'll be in touch with him to work on the specifics but we may have students tracking different birds' and their fates on Cooper Island. He's also willing to skype (when off the island) and visit the school as he has friends in Cinti anyway. How cool is that!

Our last meeting of the day was with Glen Sheehan, BASC's director then it was dinner at the famous Pepe's restaurant where our waiter Joe (who looks exactly like Smeagol from Lord of the Rings) kept us ... umm.. entertained. On the way to Pepe's we saw some of the Inupiaq men driving truckloads of bowhead whale meat to be processed. The annual whale hunt occurs each spring. Each Inupiaq family is allowed one whale which can be used by the family but not sold. Another interesting climate change connection - the Inupiaq are needing larger whaling boats because the swells that come in are now larger due to the changes in sea ice.

-- Inupiaq whaling boat.

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