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From Alaska to Ottawa

Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA. Cooper Island is off the coast.(Pic: I.Quaile)

Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA

Ottawa has been the setting for “Arctic Change”, another major Arctic conference this week. It is organised by the research network ArcticNet. I was not able to attend, but have been interviewing various people for an article on DW about the meeting, and about what is happening in the Arctic at the moment. One of the people I spoke to was George Divoky, who went to the meeting to put his own work into context and get the “big picture” of how climate change is having an impact on the Arctic. George is the mainstay of Friends of Cooper Island

He has a bird research station on Cooper Island, off Barrow, Alaska. For 45 years, he has been there every summer, observing a colony of black guillemots, who breed there. As he told me when I first met him during a trip to Alaska in 2008, his ornithological observation widened out into an observation of climate change over the years, witnessing some dramatic changes. I would like to share his views with you here on the Ice Blog.

George Divoky and friends on Cooper Island (Pic: Divoky)

George Divoky and friends on Cooper Island (Pic: Divoky)

Iceblogger: Why are you attending the conference and what do you expect from it?

As someone who has spent the past 45 summers studying seabirds in the Alaskan Arctic, I am very interested in hearing the findings of arctic researchers working in other disciplines and geographic areas.

I expect to be brought up to date on the most recent findings of how warming and development is affecting the ecosystems and people of the Arctic.  The information I obtain allows me to put my work (which is on a single species breeding on one island) in a much larger context.

Has the Canadian chairmanship of the Arctic Council affected Canada’s interest in the Arctic? 

 I know little of the international politics of the Arctic but my feeling is that Canada has always had a major interest in the Arctic because of the extent of their arctic lands and the large number of villages and settlements. With all that is now going on in the Arctic, Canada’s chairmanship certainly provides an opportunity for the country to focus on the region even more.
Are there differences in attitudes to the Arctic in the various countries involved? US; Canada, Russia, Norway…? 

 I feel that the US (with the exception of the indigenous people who live there) tends to treat its small part of the Arctic as a place to exploit natural resources and conduct research while Canadians have a much more organic (holistic) approach to the region.  My impression is that is also true for Scandinavian countries.
What has been your experience of Arctic change on Cooper Island this year?

 The 2014 breeding season on Cooper Island had the lowest number of breeding pairs of Black Guillemots in the last 20 years.  Breeding success in 2014 was low as all of the younger siblings in then nests died from starvation during a major windstorm that occurred in August after ice retreat and parent birds could not find sufficient prey.  We also had more polar bears on the island and interactions with them than during the last few years.  Polar bears were rare visitors to the island until 2002.

What impacts of the above-average rise in temperature have you seen over your years on Cooper island?

Warming first aided the guillemots (1970s and 1980) as the summer snow-free period increased and was better suited for the 90 days it takes guillemots to breed. The size of the breeding colony increased during the initial stages of warming. Continued warming (1990s to present) caused the sea ice to rapidly retreat in July and August when guillemots are feeding nestlings and the loss of ice reduced the amount and quality of prey resulting in widespread starvation of nestlings. Reduced sea ice also forced polar bears to seek refuge on the island with large numbers of nestlings being eaten by bears.

Black guillemots, courtesy of George Divoky.

Black guillemots, courtesy of George Divoky.

How serious is the problem of thawing permafrost?

 Thawing of permafrost has the potential to drastically change terrestrial ecosystems due to changes in drainage and plant communities.  The large shorebird and waterfowl populations breeding on the tundra require large areas of ponds and lakes for breeding.  Melting permafrost is allowing water to drain from the surface decreasing the extent of aquatic habitats while increasing the depth for root growth which facilitates shrubs replacing tundra plants.

Do you have a sense that there is a “rush for the Arctic’s resources” or is this just media hype?

It is clear to me that there is a rapidly increasing interest in arctic resources from government and industry.

Where should the priorities of Arctic research and Arctic policy  be in coming years?

While there will certainly be increased research in the Arctic in coming years I think it is important to realize that just because humans know more about a region or ecosystem it does not necessarily follow that they will be any better at protecting it from impacts – or likely to do so.  Pre-development ecological research is something most governments feel they must do to satisfy concerns about environmental degradation, but the ways in which that research can limit the effects of the post-development degradation – or assist in mitigating that degradation – is unclear.  Similarly, researching climate change and its effects are important but of little practical use if the research does not inform government officials and result in policies that address the causes of climate change.

With the climate conference going on in Peru – do you have the feeling the world takes the changes in the Arctic seriously? 

 I feel that the entire issue of current and predicted climate change is now being taken more seriously and, as a result, there is more focus on what is occurring in the Arctic since people and government now see the changes in the Arctic as being less removed from their own experience.

Are you optimistic about the future of the Arctic? 

 I am not optimistic that what used to be considered the “Arctic” will persist into the future.  The Arctic where I do research now bears little resemblance to the Arctic I first went to in 1970.  With models showing summer sea ice may soon disappear and predictions for increasing temperatures and development, it is likely that current and future generations of researchers will also be taken aback with the pace of change during their time in the region. Clearly, the Arctic as a geographic region will persist but the characteristics that are evoked by the word “arctic” (i.e. snow and ice dominated landscapes far from human industrial development) will no longer apply to the region.   And, of course, the biota adapted to the arctic ecosystems of the past will have very uncertain futures given the pace of change.

What will it look like in 20, 30, 50 years? 

 Much of the Arctic became technically subarctic during the last 20 years.  At least for the near future, winters will always be cold in the Arctic so some seasonal snow and ice cover will be present but the annual period when snow and ice are present will decrease. The rate at which these changes will take place is unclear as an Arctic that is ice free in summer (and losing land ice in Greenland) might cause more rapid changes.

Can anything happen to save it?

 I was very lucky to be able to be in the Arctic in the late 20th Century but it now seems clear that with the projected increases in atmospheric CO2 and resulting increases in temperatures and ocean acidifcation that the Arctic (as well as many of the earth’s natural areas) could be unrecognizable by the middle of the 21st Century.


December 11, 2014 | 4:24 pm



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Of Perth and Poznan

Apologies for a couple of weeks of silence from your Ice Blogger. Amongst other things, I’ve been finding out about the effects of climate change in areas known for their warmth and sunshine, rather than ice and snow.
You might expect the blogger to be at Poznan. But, believe me, there are plenty of other journalists there to keep the world up to date on the hours… and hours… and hours… of negotiations – and the problems of reaching an international concensus.
During a trip to Australia, I found myself in one of the world’s 34 “biodiversity hotspots” – South-West Australia. WWF, Conservation International and other groups have come up with a list of the places on earth worthy of special protection, because they have the highest concentrations of biodiversity. SW Australia is one of them.
In its capital, Perth, I paid a visit to “Panda Cottage” on Herdsman Lake.

It’s the headquarters of WWF for SW Australia. It’s a beautiful setting, with herons, spoonbills and a wide variety of birds amongst
paperbarks and other trees, reflecting on the water in bright sunshine. There is also a large population of tiger snakes. “Watch out, there’s one living just outside the door”, says Paul Gamblin, WWF Programme chief for WA.

There is an amazing variety of wildlife and plant life, for an area on the outskirts of a sprawling city.But I found out from Paul that this little idyll is subject to tremendous pressure – typical of the whole of this region of Australia. The water is actually quite badly polluted. The whole area of SW Australia has suffered from clearance for agriculture and settlment . In fact a dramatic 93% has already been lost. Now, climate change poses the next challenge. Nobody knows exactly which scenario will actually become reality. But rainfall patterns have already been changing. And wetland areas like this one are under pressure.
You can hear the interview with Paul Gamblin on the Living Planet website:
Climate Change and SW Australia on Living Planet
More info also at:
WWF Australia


December 3, 2008 | 2:42 pm



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Alaska baking faster?

This was us in Barrow just two weeks ago.
This morning, this email reached me from George Divoky, our ornithologist friend, observing climate change as part of his work monitoring a black guillemot colony on the Arctic’s Cooper Island:

“Was able to follow your travels via the B&J website and your blog and it looked like you were able to see some impressive examples of climate change in Alaska.
I was impressed with both the quality of climate change ambassadors and the media traveling with them. I tend to be skeptical of much of what is said and done to bring climate change issues to the public but found this exercise to be a good one and was glad I could become involved.
(…) I head off to Alaska in a week and Cooper Island about a week after that. After the late and snowy spring (which you know about first hand) things have gotten very hot there (5 C as I write this) and the snow all melted in the past two days.

George J. Divoky
Friends of Cooper Island


May 26, 2008 | 8:02 am



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Cool Forecasts – a Hot Topic?

They have no doubt that the planet is warming: Arctic explorers Marc Cornelissen,head of the Climate Change College, and archaeologist Anne Jensen, who rescues historic burial sites from being washed into the sea as a result of coastal erosion. (The sea ice is a natural protection barrier. As it diminishes, the land is left more vulnerable to the elements). I took the photo at Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA and well into the Arctic Circle.

People here in Germany are talking about a new study published in the journal Nature last week suggesting a possible lull in man-made global warming. (More in the “eco-news” bulletin which Nina Haase wrote for this week’s Living Planet programme):

This week’s “Eco-News” by Nina Haase

Scientists and politicians are worried that this might make people think they don’t have to rush to take action after all. The study doesn’t dispute the human role in global warming, but it predicts a cooling down from recent average temperatures between now and 2015, as a result of a natural and temporary shift in ocean currents. Now, experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are worried that people might become relaxed again about reducing emissions. There’s no doubt about the fact that people are more likely to take action if they see clear evidence of climate change and are worried about droughts and floods.
(Ines, I thought of you this morning when I read in the paper that Barcelona is relying on tankers bringing in drinking water.)
I was on a panel at an event here in Bonn today where some of the journalists – discussing the role of the media in reporting on climate change – said doubt had been cast on the methods used in the “cooling” report anyway.
In the hope that it might convince some more undecided readers of this blog (I realize of course I could be preaching to the converted with this), I’d suggest a listen to George Divoky, a dedicated ornithologist working on Cooper Island, in the Beaufort Sea north of the Arctic town of Barrow. George has been observing guillemots for 33 years and has quite clearly seen the evidence of climate change. The interview is attached for your listening pleasure. It’s also featured in our Living Planet programme this week.

This shows climate ambassador Cara, talking to a young eskimo,Kayan, who told us he is very concerned about the warming climate and the changes to the sea ice on which the eskimo culture depends so much. Cara is also on this week’s Living Planet programme.

Trying to look at ancient burial sites at Point Barrow. This shows typical everyday working conditions for scientists and other experts trying to keep track of coastal erosion and the ancient sites in danger of disappearin there.


May 14, 2008 | 4:13 pm




Climate Witnesses: The Cooper Island Guillemots

George Divoky is a man with a mission. For three months every summer for more than 30 years, he’s been keeping an eye on a breeding colony of guillemots on remote and normally uninhabited (at least by humans) Cooper Island, north-east of Barrow. He counts them and weighs them when they come in to nest, as attentive as any parent bird. But they’re dependent on sea ice for the feed that’s underneath, and the population is declining, because of the changes in sea ice patterns (I described in earlier entry). They’re forced to eat sub-standard food, as polar cod numbers are dwindling. He’s noted puffins, a sub-Arctic species not normally at home in this region, moving in. But chicks on Cooper are welcome prey for marauding polar bears, also struggling for food with the warming trend causing a decline in sea ice. The bears have even had a go at George’s tiny cabin, and all the plastic bottles inside it. Seems they like hot chilli sauce, not so keen on shampoo. He wanted to fly over with a search and rescue flight plane today, to check if the cabin’s been disturbed, but it was too windy.
Check out the guillemots on Cooper Island
You can listen in to an excerpt from the interview I did with George on this blog soon and the full version in Living Planet in the weeks to come.
George is an inspiring and charismatic speaker. He made quite an impression on all of us. You can also have a listen to Cara, one of our climate ambassadors, giving me her reactions to George’s talk on our windy trek back through the snow, once I get the audio version uploaded (details below). Cara’s a very lively climate ambassador and asks a lot of questions I would otherwise ask myself. If she changes her mind about the eco-renovation project, she could be a reporter at DW.
Other than that, the CC students have been busy with their usual daily chores, listening, questioning, blogging, filming, interviewing climate witnesses and being interviewed. This is attracting a lot of media interest, but they’re also very professional themselves when it comes to documenting the climate change info they’re gathering, and passing it on.
Erika put in an appearance in her pink fluffy worm outfit, very fetching. (She’s the one with the compost project). Jakob offered some tips with my laptop problem. He’s a real tech expert. I’ve been having a(nother?) bad technology day, with the laptop crashing. So excuse me if this entry is a bit thin on the pictures, I’ll make up for it later. A loss of data was averted by Dorin, a super-friendly IT expert from BASC. He fled from the old Roumania when he was 17 and has ended up in Barrow. (There is a strong multicultural element here, at the top end of the world. Our Eskimo friend Alice told me today she also has some Portuguese blood in her). People are very welcoming and helpful here. Basc has looked after us very well. Thanks to Alice, Dorin, Basc chief Glenn and all the folk we met in Barrow.
There was beautiful sun today (you could see the little ice crystals glittering in the air), so there was a lot of outdoor filming. Pieter, the CC cameraman from the Netherlands, deserves a medal, he was outside with the camera for hours.
This afternoon we watched the met man launch the weather balloon in Barrow, contributing to world data on weather and climate. And on the way home, our driver Michael Donovan (yesterday’s bear guide) let us have a photo stop on the “beach” – well the frozen over Chukchi Sea. An unbelievable landscape, “waves” of snow stretching as far as the eye could see.
I’m writing this on the plane to Fairfax. There’s an amazing view of snow-covered Arctic Alaska, the peaks tinged pink and gold in the nighttime sun. It looks deceptively beautiful. We’ve experienced the harsh realities of life in a pola region. The snow cover is diminishing as we move south. We’re a couple of hours late, so it’ll be nearly midnight by the time we get in. And we’re off to Healy at the crack of dawn. Climate ambassadors have a punishing schedule, and this accompanying reporter has to keep up with the pace. Life can be tough when you’re travelling with celebrities.


May 4, 2008 | 8:47 am



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