Seattle's Birdman of climate change

Researcher George Divoky turned his 40-year-long study of Arctic seabirds into an extraordinary chronicle of changing climate, melting ice and a vanishing world.
Researcher George Divoky turned his 40-year-long study of Arctic seabirds into an extraordinary chronicle of changing climate, melting ice and a vanishing world.

Crosscut archive image.George Divoky seems like the last person who should spend 40 consecutive summers on a barren sandspit off Alaska’s northern tip, alone except for a colony of pigeon-sized seabirds and, on a bad day, famished polar bears trying to make a meal of the birds and him.

Divoky (left), who spends the rest of the year in Seattle, is, to put it mildly, an easy interview — a natural, almost compulsive raconteur, riffing like a jazzman on the subject at hand. He looks a bit like a weatherbeaten James Coburn and sounds like the late Spalding Gray might have if Spalding Gray had been an Arctic field biologist. Like Gray, Divoky leavens self-absorption (a natural, perhaps necessary response to isolation) with self-deprecation, catholic curiosity, mordant asides and improbably apt associations between phenomena no one else would think to connect — all filtered through the lens of evolutionary biology.

“It seems a waste of his conversational gifts for him to be on Cooper Island alone,” Darcy Frey wrote in a New York Times Magazine cover story 13 years ago, Divoky’s most conspicuous 15 minutes of fame. (Cooper Island is the aforementioned sandspit.) According to the usual rules of self-advancement in science, which has its greasy poles and career tracks just like any other endeavor, spending 40 years studying one seabird colony, with scant publications to show for it, is a bigger waste than that.

But like Charles Darwin’s passage on the Beagle, George Divoky’s self-exile on Cooper Island turns out to have been an unexpected boon to science. By relentlessly observing one colony of nesting seabirds, he has chanced to compile a rare and priceless chronicle of the greatest threat humankind has ever faced, and inflicted: the alteration of Earth’s climate by a massive infusion of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the fossil-fuel burning, cement making, deforestation, rice-paddy cultivation, livestock rearing and eating, and other habits we humans are loath to break.

Divoky came to the Arctic to study birds, not climate. In 1970 the Smithsonian Institution dispatched him, a rookie ornithologist from Cleveland, Ohio, to assess seabirds offshore from the newly discovered Prudhoe Bay oilfield. On Cooper Island, 25 miles east of the Inupiat village that would soon become the boomtown of Barrow, Alaska, he made the discovery that would set his life’s course: black guillemots (below) nesting far north of their usual range.

Crosscut archive image.Ordinarily these pint-sized auks nest in protected rocky crevices, which are conspicuously lacking in the wide, open plain fronting the Beaufort Sea. On Cooper Island, however, the birds had found a substitute: crates and other debris dumped by the U.S. Navy.

Divoky returned in 1975 — and each summer thereafter — recording every detail of the breeding, diet, nesting success and survival of these outliers. It’s an extraordinary chronicle, one of very few comprehensive long-term studies of seabird populations and the first in the Arctic. He tags each guillemot with a number rather than a name, but he still gets to know and eventually mourn them as individuals.

Five years ago it seemed he might soon be mourning the entire colony. For three decades after he arrived, and surely millennia before that, the region’s polar bears couldn’t be bothered eating tiny birds or skinny ornithologists when they had the pack ice they needed to hunt plump seals. Then, in 2002, as the ice and seals retreated, hungry bears began raiding the nests; they’d already come snuffling around Divoky's tent. In 2009 the bears wiped out all but one nestling guillemot. Divoky set up tough Nanuk-brand plastic cargo cases (nanuk means “polar bear” in Inupiat) to protect the guillemots, and a hut and electric fence for himself.

Those measures have kept birds and birdwatcher alive, though not without some close shaves. More bears (18) sought succor on Cooper Island this past summer than Divoky had ever seen, signaling their growing desperation. Late in July, a mother bear and cub managed to shake one nesting guillemot out of its Nanuk refuge. Mom caught the bird, then tried to hand it off alive so her cub could practice killing its food. The plucky guillemot tore loose in this video moment worthy of the Discovery Channel and scampered away across the sand. (The next day the bird was dutifully tending its brood once again.)

What impressed Divoky most was not that close encounter but what happened after the bears shuffled off: “I looked up and saw two birds copulating." he says. "You have to understand, no [bird] copulates after the 10th of July. [It wouldn’t leave time to raise up a chick.] What they were having wasn’t make-up sex, it was oh-my-god-the-bear-turned-over-our-nest-and-we’re-still-alive sex.” Heightened seabird romance, driven by stress hormones, “might be one of the few benefits of climate change,” he adds mordantly.

Later that week Divoky woke from deep sleep to hear a young bear scratching at his hut. “I did everything that usually scares them away," he recalls, "making noise, firing a shot out the window. Nothing worked.” He contemplated two dreaded prospects: killing a bear and being killed by one. Finally the bear backed off far enough for Divoky to lean out and fire a shot at its feet. “It walked away just like a teenaged male, posturing and looking back to say, ‘I could come back and kill you if I wanted.’”

The changing climate was to blame for not just the bears being there but for their breaching his electric fence. For the first time, the island gravel was too dry to conduct electricity, so the bears didn't get zapped.

I got a sense of the fragility of the arctic icepack late last April when I flew up to Barrow with Divoky, who had travelled there to arrange logistics for this summer’s expedition; in particular, he was trying to schedule a snow-machine ride out to the island, something that becomes riskier each year as the Arctic sea ice thins. The ice still seemed solid on my last day there, when I went out ski-jöring with a borrowed husky named Namik tethered to my waist for extra momentum. That is, until the ice hummocks grew too jagged for easy gliding. I savored the ice-crystal glow in the nightless late-night sky, the ineffable stillness and silence. It seemed a world as distant from everyday concerns, as invincible and enduring, as deep space or the bottom of the sea.

Crosscut archive image.
Barrow, Alaska, where community connections still matter. Credit: Eric Scigliano

After returning to Seattle I received an email message from my Barrow host: "Check out this link." It took me to a speeded-up animation of radar readings of the coastal icepack on the following night. A wind had risen from the east, chipping away at the ice until suddenly, like a window hit by a flying brick, the ice pack broke up and washed far out to sea.

I was lucky to have gotten off the ice before then and caught a carbon-spewing flight back to Seattle. The guillemots have no such easy options.

In 2011 Divoky fitted some of the birds with tiny depth sensors that record how often and how deep they dive in search of food for their chicks. “Normally they would dive five to eight meters to catch fish," he explains. "But this past summer they were going down 21 meters.” The guillemots were also making more dives and flying farther and farther offshore in search of their preferred food, fat-rich arctic cod. Increasingly, they were settling for sculpin, a warmer-water fish with less nutritional value and spines that can choke hungry nestlings.

Initially, warming waters and melting ice drove the cod farther north. The water was cold enough for arctic cod in August. But then then came a major wind storm.

With the sheltering ice gone, high winds whip up waves across a much longer reach of sea. This aspect of the new Arctic climate regime has gotten less attention than warming water, thawing permafrost and melting ice, but it can also have devastating consequences for visual hunters like the guillemots who struggle to find their prey in the turbid, wind-whipped waters.

In August, all the younger, smaller chicks in the nests starved to death. “As soon as the wind stopped, all the alpha chicks that were left did really well, since the cod were still close by,” says Divoky. But the colony had absorbed another severe blow.

Already, fewer breeding pairs had returned to Cooper Island than at any time in the past 20 years — just 110, down from 225 in 1989 and roughly 150 in recent years. Divoky had expected the bumper crop of fledglings that emerged three years ago to return this year to breed. He wonders if they opted instead to join other colonies farther south, where the changes are not so dramatic and the fishing is more certain. It’s a not-so-nice irony that applies to desperate polar bears raiding mainland garbage dumpsters as well: Arctic species uprooted by Arctic warming have no place to go but south.

Divoky seems to take their dislocation personally, part of his 40-years-and-counting of dedication to this lonely project. In the guillemots, and in the mostly Inupiat town of Barrow, he has found the sort of community that seems so fleeting in the more frantic world to the south.

“Divoky!” the young man at the car-rental counter exclaims when he walks in, after nearly a year away, to inquire about a pick-up truck. As we drive around town, the voices crackle gently one after another over the local marine radio band: “Good morning” — and greetings to so-and-so, who has a new granddaughter. Or to the intrepid young men preparing to paddle out in sealskin boats to hunt this year’s bowhead whales (if the whales ever show up). Or just taking a moment to check in, keep in touch, like birds signaling that they made it back to the roost.        

Crosscut archive image.     
The loneliness of the long-distance orthithologist. Credit: Eric Scigliano                                           

This reminds Divoky of a book he read last year on Cooper Island, Philip Slater’s 1970 The Pursuit of Loneliness, about hyper-individualism and alienation in modern competitive society. “That’s why I appreciate Barrow so much," he says "I can understand why people here never leave. Outsiders tell them they need to get away to advance their careers, but what’s that worth? So they can work for some corporation or agency in a strange city and  become cogs in the corporate and government machine? Here you still know the same friends you grew up with. You know whom to trust and whom to watch out for. You know how you fit in.”

Having found his improbable niche on the Beaufort Sea, Divoky hung in through lean years and leaner, sometimes with funding and sometimes without. The economics of his research are a little better now; he’s established the nonprofit Friends of Cooper Island, which supports his work through an irresistible annual fundraiser at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum. This year or next he’s looking to add a second cabin on the island for students, scientists and other visitors. On March 24, 2015 the Friends will host a 40th anniversary celebration at Seattle's Town Hall.

Eighty percent of life isn’t just showing up; it’s hanging in after you do. Divoky started earlier and has stayed longer than almost anyone measuring Arctic sea and ice conditions. His tallies of the guillemots’ arrival, fledging and departure dates, and their diets, their survival, their breeding dates also record the increasingly early melting and return of the snows, the breakup of the ice and the progressive replacement of Arctic fishes with less nutritious warmer-water species. “Your data are more robust than the models,” Craig George, the North Slope Borough’s senior wildlife biologist, told Divoky in Barrow last April.

He is now fitting the guillemots with geolocators that will record where they go, the temperatures they encounter and how much time they spend in water and on ice. Someday they may all leave and never come back. If so, George Divoky will have outlasted the birds that kept him coming to the Arctic for most of his life, and the Arctic itself as they and he have known it.

The photo of the black guillemots on Cooper Island is courtesy of George Divoky. All rights reserved.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.