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.

Denali National Park

Took the shuttle bus to the Eileson Visitor Center in Denali today. Private cars can only drive in the 1st 15 miles. Beyond that you have to take a shuttle bus or hike in. The weather was clear and we were fortunate to be able to see Denali (Mt. McKinley) clearly almost the whole time. Most visitors to the park do not as it is usually hidden in clouds. Even when it is clear in the rest of the park, Denali is so tall and massive it generates its own weather. The entire ride (8 hours of it!) was spectacular. Sometimes the colors of the mountains were muted tans, greens, and reds, other mountains were stark black and snow white against the bold blue sky. Words that come to mind are majestic, endless, intense, alive.
In addition to the mountains we saw 4 Grizzlies, a herd of Barren Ground Caribou, lots of Dall Sheep (the park was created to protect these), Golden Eagles, a Gyre Falcon (thanks to a birder on our bus), Snowshoe Hares and the most precocious Ground Squirrels.

I think I am being stalked! Once again, Ohioans are following me. The girl behind me on the bus is from the Cincinnati area AND is a former student of Jill Russell's - one of the professors we are here to travel with. What are the chances of that???

Teacher Talk: Denali is 56 million years old, 20,320 feet high, and still growing at a rate of about 1mm per year. It is made of granite (formed after molten magma solidfied underground) which resists erosion much better than the shale, limestone, and sandstone that make up many of the other mountains in the Alaska range. The mountain range is forming as the Pacific Plate continues to collide with the North American Plate (a convergent oceanic-continental boundary moving at about 5 cm per year), causing folds in the North American plate. Denali is Athabascan for "great one".

The trees in Denali - in fact, throughout Alaska - are smaller than I expected. I was expecting enormous conifers such as those in the Pacific northwest. They are small due to the short growing season and to permafrost - permanently frozen soil that is not far from the surface. Because tree roots can't penetrate deeply, their growth is stunted. Our shuttle driver told us about a tree that was downed and was only about 12" in diameter. Scientists were unable to see any growth rings until they took it to a lab, dyed it, and viewed it with a hand lens. The tree was just under 500 years old!

Denali is full of "braided rivers" that are glacially fed. They look like really large rivers that have dried up and left behind a mostly empty riverbed. Braided rivers form when meltwater flows off a glacier and gradually deposits its sediments. When enough are deposited in one area it changes the path of the water and a new channel is formed. This is repeated over and over, hence the braided appearance.