Dr. George Divoky

Seabird Biologist studying in Arctic Alaska since 1970.

Dr George Divoky has been studying seabirds in arctic Alaska since 1970 and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is the founder of Friends of Cooper Island, a nonprofit scientific/education organization that maintains the long-term study of seabirds on Cooper Island and preserves and distributes Cooper Island data for use by current and future researchers studying climate change and other Arctic phenomena. Divoky also has an active outreach program speaking to conservation organizations and school groups.

Studying the Black Guillemots of Cooper Island has largely been a solitary venture for George. While the discovery and initial years of the study were part of governmental research related to oil development in northern Alaska, for the past two decades the work has been conducted with occasional grants and personal dedication.

Divoky’s research on Cooper Island was featured in a January 6, 2002 cover story in the New York Times Magazine entitled “George Divoky’s Planet,” written by Darcy Frey.

https://cooperisland.org/george-divoky/

Studying the Black Guillemots of Cooper Island has largely been a solitary venture for Dr. George Divoky. While the discovery and initial years of the study were part of governmental research related to oil development in northern Alaska, for the past four decades the work has been conducted with occasional grants and much personal dedication. Long-term studies, such as George’s, rarely can be conducted by the government, which typically focus on immediate agency needs, while the duration of most academic research is insufficient to allow exposition of multi-decadal trends. Yet it is precisely this type of extended data set that is needed to monitor the long-term cycles and trends related to climate change and other atmospheric variation.

George Divoky is the founder of Friends of Cooper Island and serves as its director in collaboration with a governing board. George has been studying seabirds in arctic Alaska since 1970 and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Research priorities and directions are set with the advice of a Scientific Advisory Board composed of prominent arctic researchers from a number of disciplines.

George’s long-term research on Cooper Island was the focus of a New York Times Magazine cover story entitled “George Divoky’s Planet” by Darcy Frey.

Interviews

2009

Dr. George Devoky is a biologist who has been studying black guillemots on Cooper Island, 20 miles east of Point Barrow, for the past 40 years. He first went to the island in 1970 while studying birds in the Beaufort Sea, and then returned in 1975 to study the black guillemot colony he found on Cooper Island which is ideal for black guillemots as they feed at the edge of the pack ice. Divoki built boxes for the birds to occupy and studied their demographics over time, including egg-laying, adult survival, hatching success, and fledging success. Guillemots have an 80-day nesting period, which is long for any species anywhere but in the Arctic. Divoki has been studying the guillemots annually and has records of their demographics for around 35 years, making him one of the few people to any animal for that long. He has named individual birds based on the color bands he places on them and has recognized them over the years. Guillemots are excellent monitors of conditions because they are active all summer long, so any changes that happen during that time can affect their breeding success.

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George Divoky discusses the changing dates for egg laying in a colony of Arctic birds–black guillemots. He relates the changes in temperature in Northern Alaska and Cooper Island over the past 30 years. He describes the challenges of setting up support systems on the island and dealing with the new thermal regime, but also talks about his love for working in such a bright Arctic environment.

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Dr. George Divoky recounts his experience with bears invading his campsite in 2002, where one bear backed him and his team out of their campsite and destroyed two of their tents. After realizing the potential danger of bears ripping up tents and being unable to see anything the windowless tents, in 2003 Dr. Divoky built an 8 by 12 cabin. But the cabin was broken into and trashed by bears in his absence. To avoid such incidents, he now takes great pains to board up the cabin as much as possible before leaving. Dr. Divoky visits the cabin every early April to check on it and board it up as necessary. He also uses this opportunity to reconnect with the Utqiaġvik community and check on the nest sites on the island. Since the ice has been pulling farther and farther offshore, polar bears have been visiting annually since 2002, looking for food. Dr. Divoky expresses mixed emotions about seeing the bears; his first concern is his own safety, but he also feels upset seeing the bears eating the chicks or eggs.

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2022

Dr. George Divoky explains that he uses geolocators to track bird movements, specifically how they migrate north after breeding and occupy the Bering Sea. He mentions a significant ice reduction in 2017, which led to birds wintering for the first time in the Chukchi Sea. This shift in wintering distribution and the availability of fish in the Bering Sea had an impact on bird survival. Dr. Divoky notes that annual adult survival rates remained stable, but breeding success was affected, resulting in fewer pairs laying and incubating eggs. Experienced birds had better reproductive outcomes, indicating a potential selective process. The changes in wintering grounds present challenges for bird adaptation.

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Dr. George Divoky discusses the state of Guillemots and whether there is any hope for their future in the Arctic. He mentions that certain “more experienced” birds are successfully raising their young, reminiscent of the past, which is a positive sign. He acknowledges, however, that rapid changes in the Arctic pose challenges for their adaptation. Dr. Divoky refers to the situation as a “train wreck” and is curious about the current population of birds. Recently he has been collaborating with French researchers and computer modelers and their analysis of egg sizes, which have shown a decrease over time. This suggests potential changes in prey availability or the condition of female birds upon their return. They plan to further investigate these findings and their implications for climate change.

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Bird biologist, George Divoky has been visiting Cooper Island every year to study the Guillemot colony for nearly half a century. Despite challenges and setbacks, he continues his work because he feels a strong connection to the island and its inhabitants. Over the years, he has witnessed changes in the bird population due to climate change. The recent decline in breeding pairs has taken an emotional toll on him, but he remains committed to monitoring and documenting the colony’s demographics. Dr. Divoky hopes to inspire others to carry on his work and is actively involving researchers and students in his study. He believes that as long as there is support and interest, he will continue his lifelong research.

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Dr. George Divoky, a researcher with a 48-year-long study on Cooper Island, shares his remarkable journey. He highlights the changes he has witnessed in both the physical world and himself. From the support of the now defunct Naval Arctic Research Lab to the challenges of being alone on the island, he reflects on the risks and transformations. The arrival of bears due to shifting ice patterns was a paradigm shift for him. Bear encounters have become more frequent. He also mentions the scarcity of fresh water on the island, forcing him to adapt his methods. Overall, his story offers insight into the evolving environment and his personal growth during this extended research endeavor.

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Dr. George Divoky had already been studying Black Guillemots on Cooper Island just off Point Barrow, Alaska, for 28 years, in relative obscurity, until a New York Times article in 2002 brought attention to his work on the melting Arctic. His research on one bird population on one island was already revealing the devastating impact of climate change and declining sea ice. By monitoring nesting cycles and observing migration patterns, he discovered that the decline in Arctic bird populations was primarily due to decreasing migration rates from source colonies in other parts of the Arctic. Dr. Divoky’s findings highlighted the collapse of an important ecosystem and emphasized the need for long-term monitoring of the cryopelagic system. Dr. Divoky’s work on Black Guillemots continues after 48 years and serves as one of the most detailed long-term research projects highlighting how global warming is affecting the planet’s climate.

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