Impacts of Climate Change and Sea Ice on Arctic Seabirds

Latest update July 17, 2018 Started on June 20, 2018

Wendi Pillars, educator, will be teamed with Alexis Will and a team of international researchers in Savoonga, Alaska. The primary goals of the summer research are to analyze five particular Arctic seabirds to help us understand the non-breeding ecology of seabirds.
This is especially pressing in areas of the Arctic undergoing changes in winter sea ice dynamics and increases in natural resource development. Using the data they collect, the team will develop a conceptual model of how warming in the Pacific Arctic will alter the region’s food web structure which is so important for seabird conservation and management.

June 20, 2018
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The legacy of bad handwriting

Seems that locals subscribe to the view that Nome was named thanks to bad handwriting. A British cartographer misread the "? Name" on a nautical chart as C. Nome or "Cape Nome". Others ascribe to the idea that "no-me" is "I don't know" in a local native language, and well, it stuck. Yet others claim that Nome's founder, a Norwegian named Jafet Lindeberg, named it after an area near his home, Nomedalen.

Which do you believe?

A mix of old and new

Talk of wind currents, wave heights, and impending weather were the stuff of overheard conversations at the Polar Cafe on main street. Along with these time-honored logistics were also frustrations of not being able to post social media PR for a dredging business. Morning in a gold mining town. A mix of old and new.

NYC in Nome

Richard, aka, the Mayor (at $75/ month, he is a professional!), was a former actor, dancer, and singer in NYC, and has been here more than 30 years. "Moving here saved my life", he claims, and oh, does he have stories. I think his favorite is the prediction, based on his childhood sassiness, that he would be "selling freezers to Eskimos one day". Lo and behold, he has indeed done that while in the last frontier.

The tour was pure entertainment, and everyone knows Richard. "Hello, Central!" was his exuberant greeting, his Jersey throwback and a nod to old-time phone calls. If you're ever in Nome, find Richard and spend a few hours on his Discovery Tour.

Tundra colors

I think one of the greatest surprises is how green and absolutely alive the tundra is. For something that is frozen so much of the year, the fact that plants grow here at all can mystify those unfamiliar with botany (like me). In a nutshell, bumblebees and flies help pollinate flowers, while flowers and plants conserve energy by staying small. This is a treeless land, except for some implants in the cemetery from further inland, although shrubs and small trees (like willows, which look completely unlike willows I know) are prominent outside of Nome proper.

As Richard likes to say, "Each trip is different. It's never the same. I'm always seeing something new or reminded of something different."

Pull tabs

The only gambling vice in town is the ubiquitous pull-tab. Purchase a card for $1 and try your luck. Casinos are no longer legal here, but the Alaska Gaming Reform Act was passed in 1983 permitting pull tabs to be sold statewide, with the promise of funding to non-profits, like schools. I admit I contributed, but also learned quickly why there was such a large trashcan near the pull-tab counter. No beginner's luck for me. Alas.


Graves of locals walloped by the Spanish flu pandemic, rampant alcoholism, and rich lives dot this hilltop. Although overgrown with grasses and subarctic flowers, many of the graves are well-taken care of with flowers and loving artifacts. Most of the markers are wooden, rather than stone, surprising since there are so few trees nearby. Many are also unmarked, but are registered and known, town officials just haven't gotten around to getting the names on them. Richard typically uses a marker on a friend's grave on his visits, but it had washed away. A metaphor, perhaps?

The cookie recipe from the dead, however, remains engraved on one of the few stone obelisk graves. Provided by the deceased mom of 11, it was apparently a well-loved concoction. You'll have to imagine that grave marker yourself.

Last stop

Last but not least was the Safety Roadhouse, the final checkpoint of the famous 1049 mile Iditarod. This bar, known for its walls plastered with dollar bills autographed by visitors from around the world (and now me, too!) is 20 miles outside of Nome. Undoubtedly a welcome sign for mushers and dogs alike in that last leg of a grueling race.

Today's tweet

Nome: ostensibly the perfect excuse for life-changing tundra flora-rainbows, dollar checkpoints, cookies from beyond and charitable pull-tabs.

*Captions: 1) Richard, showman, tour guide, and mayor, my tour guide for the afternoon, for all things Nome-ish. 2) Muskox skins drying in the summer sun. 3) Arctic cottongrass. I think this is one of my favorite flora so far. It's beautiful, and so soft. 4) 9) Pull tabs, the gambling choice of action in Nome. Proceeds go toward charities. I did my part.

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Packed for adventure

35 pounds of checked luggage. Obviously I still had some packing to do, as in 15 more pounds worth! Ha. It's all good. As you'll see, my day wear and evening wear shall be eerily similar.


Tears were shed (ugh, always the toughest part of any departure), and the hugs were strong with my not-so-little guy. He packed for camp while I finished my packing, which he thought was "cool". "We're both packing, Mom! It feels like we're moving." We just returned from a week-long baseball tournament in Tennessee, so yesterday was a day of unpacking, errands, laundry and re-packing. At 12, Ian already recognizes how much you change on the inside when you go somewhere, and then how you see things differently upon return. Pretty sweet pre-departure conversation to have.

The skies are beautiful this morning, and I've met a couple who are also headed to Anchorage, so I already have travel mates. Alexis has procured our rental digs and my travel permit to the island, so she's making it easy for my side of prep.

Today's tweet: (because how else would you encapsulate a journey about birds?)

Raleigh => Chicago => Anchorage => Nome. Tomorrow, Nome => Savoonga. Bittersweet balance between missing family and exploring anew. #AlaskaBound

*Caption: Catching seabirds? Count me in, please. Love, the cat."


Sifting through research
One of the ways I process information is through sketches or some sort of art, and for me, I could wax rhapsodic for days about the value of different means of expression for our students.

My hope is to create field sketches on a regular basis to document our findings and what I am learning in order to make the science even more accessible to others. (Not to mention to help me remember as much as possible!) Sketching can be time-consuming, however, so there may be mini sketches, pure field notes, or maybe even some field poetry. Bear with me as I learn to balance research duties with the time to document.

I also have my very first rite-in-the-rain notebook, which should come in handy on the not-so-tropical isle.

For Scientists, Researchers, Explorers

If you are a researcher, scientist and/ or explorer, wondering how to share your work, please consider other formats than the verbal scientific article. Doing so adds depth and breadth to learning, and inspires questions, wonder, and curiosity in ways no one anticipates. Scientific articles can be so daunting, especially for students. Know that by opening a window into your processes, including preparation, packing, thinking, brainstorming, failures and the tiniest of successes, your work at every stage might be even more valuable than the final "Holy Grail" outcome.


Below are just a couple of examples (a "sneak beak", if you will) of how I synthesize my understanding, so be on the lookout for more in future posts. Sketching the birds has helped me become intimate with their details in a way that mere reading cannot do. Extracting the essence of copious amounts of written information into "simpler" sketches may look simple, but there is a process of decision-making, mental organization and connection-making that has to happen and it takes time.

What are some favorite ways you keep track of your learning? How do you learn best?

As a nod to the science of birds, what better way to provide a post synopsis than with a tweet? Most will conform to 140 characters or fewer rather than the longer ones. I also wonder which readers will be savvy enough to find--and contribute!--great bird puns?...

Today's Tweet

Dear Explorers of all kinds, we want to know more about what you do. Explore, share, repeat. By any means possible. Educators will gladly help!

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"Congratulations ladies and gentlemen, you've just witnessed the birth of a new climate." According to Rick Thoman, Climate sciences and services manager, National Weather Service, Alaska region minimum temperatures have steadily increased. The most significant climate changes have been seen in the northern coastal regions of Alaska. Thoman says sea ice depletion and its insulating factor resulted in a completely new climate type along the Arctic coast.

Here are some of my takeaways from Rick Thoman's talk:

There is complex interaction among the Earth's systems such as the atmosphere, biosphere, and cryosphere. What is happening with our climate is not just happening in our atmosphere.

The biosphere influences and drives climate changes, and is characterized by far more rapid increases and decreases in the upper Arctic regions than at 37 degrees N, (Norfolk, VA) for example. (All living things in/on the planet are categorized under the biosphere.) The cryosphere includes the frozen places on Earth that are so cold that water is a solid, in the form of ice or snow. Not all of the places are in the polar regions!

We can use several other items/ organisms for climate records, including tree rings, coral, ice cores, and lake/ ocean sediment.

Arctic sea ice differs from that in the Antarctic due to its variability. The statistics are not as "smooth" or consistent as they tend to be in the southern pole region.

CO2 will remain longer than CH4 (methane), although there are many contributors to methane release which amplify impacts of greenhouse gases. CO2 levels have rocketed just since the Industrial Revolution.

Human impacts are most certainly at play.

Disclaimer: The more I learn, for certain, the less I know. Listening to weather and climate experts, most would grasp the fact that humans have had--and are having--an immense impact on the earth's climate and weather.


Prep Time Part Two

Researcher prep Each team member has plenty of preparation to do on their end, and with an international team hailing from Alaska, Japan, Russia, and France, it will be interesting to learn each researcher's priorities.

Alexis Will is my partner in this process, as well as the Principal Researcher. She works as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow between the National Institute of Polar Research in Japan and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Although she admits she can be a "last-minute person", she seems pretty busy.

Researcher Tasks Some of her prep tasks include the following:

1.Ensure research is approved by the University's Animal Care and Use Committee.

2.Ensure that any new team member (such as myself!) completes required online classes for animal handling regulations.

3.Secure lodging, which in this case, will be renting a house from a local family. Personal space will be at a premium, all part of the adventure and yet more impetus to pack light.

4.Field Food! Since we will be in a remote island village, feeding a team of folks for several weeks can be a challenge. *Draw up a list for feedback/ requests from the team *Decide where to purchase items *Plan timing of food delivery to the island *Some food is stored on the island from last year, so we won't starve, but mail can be pretty unpredictable (Apparently it took one box 5 weeks to get to the island last year! *All of the food planning requires some research on shipping methods and shopping options which can be pretty stressful. If your team isn't fed and happy, well, you can guess how that would go!

5.Once those logistics are in place, she gets busy making and printing maps, packing gear, purchasing supplies in town, printing out field note books...lots of what she calls "small things", but they're all new to me, so I say they're pretty big things.

6.PLUS, with me joining the team, she's answering my questions, helping me with a packing list, and sending out research articles! Thanks, Alexis!

The more preparation done in advance, the better. It's expensive to conduct research, especially in a remote location, so the goal is to hit the ground running!

Packing list? We'll be, in essence, "Glamping in Savoonga", so rain gear, layers, and more layers rule the day. Plenty of different types of gloves, since it will be cold, wet, and windy while we're capturing and handling birds. Did I mention layers?

Shopping For those who've asked me about shopping, what I know is that there's a single store in Savoonga and cash is best since the card machine at the store doesn't always work. (Also, prices can be triple that of the mainland, and the range of items can be slim, so plan ahead!) Local artists, industrious in nature, sell their wares, too, and since Savoonga is the Walrus Capital of the World, it's home to some of the best ivory carvers in the world.

On the Homefront There's also family prep and animal logistics at home. We are all trying to bank some time with our loved ones, and one of the things I've done to try and remind my 12 year old that I'll be home soon is create a calendar with appointments, lessons, camp, and notes. Some of his favorite candy is included, along with some surprise cards and small goodies. The trickiest challenge is leaving family, but at the same time, I imagine it's extra impetus to maximize every minute away.

What other questions do you have?


Prep time

As an educator, one of the greatest boosts to instruction and making content relevant comes from learning about the processes behind the research. What goes on behind the scenes of not only research, but those "wow factors" and seemingly immediate discoveries. These next couple of posts will focus on prep work on my end, in the name of transparency.

For educators, the value lies in knowing about the nitty gritty behind the science, what's involved in preparing for research, what happens when things don't go exactly as according to plan (you know, those rare occurrences...), how you aggregate data in a timely manner, given constraints, grant funding, deadlines, connectivity issues, politics, and so on.

I'm deep in the throes of preparation for Savoonga, but I'm also working, spending time at multi-day baseball tournaments, and savoring family time. In other words, preparation is not a full-time job, but it certainly could be.

Prepping with students

As an educator in a team of researchers, my prep looks quite different than theirs. Here are just a couple of things my students and I did to prepare for my journey.

A voracious reader, I immediately searched for books to read about seabirds, St. Lawrence Island, Savoonga, the Arctic, you name it. Fascinated by language, I've also indulged in books about the Siberian Yupik language as well as Siberian Yupik Eskimo culture. Google searches and magazine articles have been my friend, as have suggestions and science research articles from Alexis and Alexander (my research team leaders). My Mom has bought in, too, which makes it an extra joy – she finds all kinds of resources and tells me about what she learned reading them. In other words, there is plenty to stoke my growing understanding of Arctic life according to Siberian Yupik Eskimos, which will in turn, help me better understand the role of seabirds in a subsistence community. Pretty cool, hmm? As I learned new information and found resources, I was able to share more with students. (pic 1)

Arctic reading

A few of the resources I found to learn more about the Arctic as well as St. Lawrence Island in particular. Photo by Wendi Pillars. Siberian Yupik reading Some of the resources I used to familiarize myself with both the language and culture of Siberian Yupik Eskimos. Photo by Wendi Pillars. Then, it became my students' turn to do a little sleuthing.

Student Sleuthing

In May, I introduced the expedition to my students; they researched facts about the island and made predictions about what kids in Savoonga might do for fun. Suffice it to say, the majority of my students believe that amenities of life as they know it are not present on the island. Most would prefer to stay in Siler City, but there are also a few who are game to venture out and meet new types of people, experience what they do when they're not in school, and "learn to live outdoors". Some admitted they would like to go to school in Savoonga "just to see what it is like", but weren't so keen on the idea of moving there. Most feared it would "be awfully cold up there", and wondered what kind of clothes kids think are fashionable when they're "bundled up all the time."

About Me Page

Students created About Me Pages to share with counterparts in Savoonga. Relating to other students first before trying to conquer the remoteness of Arctic Seabirds was a cultural hook to spur thinking about what might be interesting to what will be a unique audience. Photo by Wendi Pillars. Students also created single page information sheets about themselves, including a single favorite tradition within their family. (I work with students who are English language learners, so all of their families hail from outside the United States, which is always interesting to students in other countries, or with different demographics.) It includes short blurbs about their likes and dislikes, hobbies, their families, and a sketch of both the NC flag as well as our state and the location of Siler City. Folks, there are a LOT of things we assume our students will know. Basic geography is a big one, and this simple activity reminded me how important it can be to place ourselves, if for no other purpose than a shared bit of humanity.

Students discovered information about different aspects of Savoonga and St. Lawrence Island, including plants, animals, activities, traditions, the geography, and sketched a map of the island as well, all information ripe for comparison to our own state and region.

St. Lawrence Map

Student-created map of St. Lawrence Island, with flora, fauna, geography, traditions, and predictions about what activities the locals enjoy. We also spent some rare time outdoors, on slow walks to listen, to observe, and to re-discover their immediate surroundings. Each student was tasked with identifying three different leaves, which we did step by step with guides online and a couple of decades-old tattered field guides.

An eye-opening challenge

Guess which was the most difficult?

Sitting outside to listen and observe was incredibly challenging for most of my students, which is telling to me. We've all lost touch with nature, and encouraging them (and myself!) to surmise what subsistence culture entails has proven a delightful stretch to our imagination, trying to determine what those who live so closely with nature do differently.


The last element of student preparation was a banner with pictures of activities at our high school. Students printed pictures and arranged them in the shape of the school, from an aerial view, which I thought was a brilliant idea. The goal of creating these pages and the banner is two-fold: connection and technology constraints.

Connecting students to a remote place, and a very different culture is tough. Heck, it's tough for adults to think about. Considering and predicting how kids live, and using people as a gateway to understanding place helps make it relevant. I know we haven't studied birds with my students yet, but knowing what I do about my students, this was the hook they needed.

I'm told that connectivity isn't "the greatest", and that there is one locale in the village that has internet at given times. Trying to decipher whether those times will correspond to times we might need it would be frustrating, hence our option to go old-school with the paper book and banner. Additionally, these can be displayed in the community center so others can learn, too. I'm hoping that several community members will chime in to respond to the questions students asked!

You can see that engaging students doesn't have to be high-tech or super fancy. Sometimes letting students slow down a bit, especially when they're grappling with new concepts, is far more effective and memorable.

Captions for pictures below

  1. A few of the resources I found to learn more about the Arctic as well as St. Lawrence Island in particular.
    • Some of the resources I used to familiarize myself with both the language and culture of Siberian Yupik Eskimos.*
  2. Students created About Me Pages to share with counterparts in Savoonga. Relating to other students first before trying to conquer the remoteness of Arctic Seabirds was a cultural hook to spur thinking about what might be interesting to what will be a unique audience.
  3. Student-created map of St. Lawrence Island, with flora, fauna, geography, traditions, and predictions about what activities the locals enjoy.
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Expedition Background

Team leader Alexis Will is originally from Fairbanks, Alaska (the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks), but is currently working with the National Institute of Polar Research in Japan. The group itself is quite diverse with members of the team hailing from Japan, Russia, France, and Alaska. These teams have collaborated on several previous studies investigating the responses of seabirds to environmental changes in the Bering Sea. Wendi Pillars is an educator selected to team with the researchers in order to help communicate science in the classroom, connect her students to the community in which the research takes place, and whose students would benefit from the opportunity to connect with an Arctic community.

Wendi is one of 12 educators selected by PolarTREC this year to help expand scientific thinking in new ways in various areas of the polar regions. The PolarTREC program is managed by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS), a non profit based in Alaska with an office in Washington D.C. ARCUS is a consortium of educational and scientific members committed to arctic research and has received funding over the years from the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs for PolarTREC.

We will be researching impacts of climate change and sea ice on Arctic Seabirds. Estimates are that 80 or 85 percent of the United States’ seabirds nest in Alaskan waters, and most of those are in the Bering Sea. St. Lawrence Island is considered to be the "gateway to the Arctic" and is rich with sea life for feeding birds, but as with the canary in the coalmine, birds are considered sentinels of change here, too.

Climate change impacts the marine food web in myriad ways, we will be analyzing seabird vomit, blood, and feathers (!) to understand their diets, and nutritional status (whether they are able to meet their energetic needs). We will also be collecting small tracking devices the birds have carried during the past year to gain insight into where they have traveled throughout the winter. This information will help my research team to understand what the future seabird community and marine food web may look like as sea ice continues to retreat from this region of the world. Will the retreat of sea ice make it more challenging for seabirds to find food? Will it open up new habitat for birds to use in the winter? These are the kinds of questions the research is designed to answer.

(Photo was taken by Lisa Sheffield Guy, and is housed in the PolarTREC archives)


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