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Exploring the Impact of Arctic Ice Melt with ‘Seabird Watch’ Scientists in Spitsbergen

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This summer, we'll welcome a very special team of researchers back onboard as we explore Svalbard, aptly nicknamed the wildlife capital of the Arctic. Dr. Mark Jessopp from the MaREI Centre, University College Cork and Dr. Tom Hart of Oxford University are traveling with Quark Expeditions to access cliff-nesting seabird colonies around Svalbard, where they'll deploy monitoring cameras.

Dr. Tom Hart (left) and Dr. Mark Jessopp celebrate a camera's survival in Svalbard with Quark Expeditions, 2016. Photo credit:

It's all part of their new Seabird Watch program, an Arctic successor to the wildly popular Penguin Watch program, created by Dr. Hart to monitor and study penguin populations in Antarctica.

What is Seabird Watch and why is it important?

Dr. Jessopp and Dr. Hart aim to monitor how seabirds are reacting to climate change, in order to influence policy that could help ensure their survival and that of the ecosystem as a whole. Seabirds are an excellent indicator of the overall health of the fragile Arctic marine ecosystem, thanks to their place at the top of the food chain. There may be very simple things we can do as a society to help, such as changing fishing practices to leave enough available resources for seabirds to survive.

Climate models tell us that sea ice, a particularly important habitat in the Arctic, is decreasing more rapidly than in previous decades. There's a great biological interaction between seabirds and the sea ice, in that phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like organisms) aggregate under the surface of the sea ice, particularly around its edges. This forms the basis of the food chain; zooplankton graze on the phytoplankton, and small fish graze on the zooplankton. In turn, we have seabirds feeding on the small fish and zooplankton.

Quark passengers and expedition team stand beneath a towering Svalbard cliff teeming with seabirds. Photo: Dr. Sam Crimmin

In addition, seals rely on the sea ice for breeding, and polar bears require sea ice to hunt seals on.

As Arctic ice melts, the reduced phytoplankton activity begins to affect the entire Arctic food chain. The Seabird Watch team hypothesize that receding sea ice caused by climate change may make it difficult for seabirds to get enough food to feed their chicks and have successful breeding seasons.

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How does Seabird Watch help?

Seabird Watch will monitor the nests of cliff-nesting seabird species, beginning with Kittiwakes. In future, they hope to study Puffins, Guillemots, and Northern Gannets.

Cliff nesting seabird species can be followed from the moment a chick hatches until it's ready to fledge and fly away. This gives researchers a great idea of breeding success and also allows them to see how where the chicks are in the colony affects how well they do. Are the birds on the outside of the colony failing later in the season, compared to those in the middle of the colony? If there are poor birds and good birds, what's the difference between them?

Further, successful chick fledging may indicate that population declines are likely to be occurring outside the breeding season, and may be due to increased number and severity of winter storms due to climate change, which prevent birds from feeding sufficiently to reach breeding condition.

Black-legged Kittiwakes nest on a sheer cliff face in the Arctic. Image credit: Gregory Smith

There's much to be learned from the monitoring of Arctic seabirds, with wide-ranging implications across the Arctic ecosystem.

Seabird Watch researchers will access colonies during shore trips and set up cameras, returning the following year to download the cameras and process the data. The recorded images then need to be annotated, which requires manually identifying the birds in each image, and processed to extract chick survival.

So how can you get involved?

Why become a Citizen Scientist?

Over the past several years, you've had the opportunity to get involved in research on the impact of climate change on penguins via Hart's Citizen Scientist program. The website houses a repository of still images from dozens of cameras located at penguin colonies around the seventh continent, each of which captures a photo every 30 seconds.

It's a massive undertaking, accessing those remote cameras to change the batteries and memory cards each year. Dr. Hart and his colleagues travel with Quark, often for months at a time, helping to transport passengers to shore landings and then taking off to quickly gather feathers and tend to their cameras while you're exploring.

Penguinologist Tom Hart sets up a time lapse camera during a trip to Antarctica.

Dr. Tom Hart adjusts one of his remote penguin colony cameras in Antarctica.

Those cameras produce a great volume of images that then need to be evaluated, to determine the health and success of each colony. To date, some 2.5 million photos have been captured, and approximately 750,000 of those are in the Penguin Watch database. The website's 45,000 registered Citizen Scientists help to determine what's in each photo.

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As a Citizen Scientist, you'll count, identify and tag penguins in those images. Through the site's forums, you can also converse with the scientists behind the research. And if you're onboard an expedition while these researchers are at work, you get to experience their important work firsthand. Dr. Hart shares the Penguin Watch program in onboard lectures, complete with time-lapse video that allows you to experience an entire year in the life of an Antarctic penguin colony in mere minutes.

Soon, you'll be able to help the Seabird Watch team with their Arctic seabird research in the same way.

What's it like travelling with scientists and researchers?

This is one of the greatest ways in which expeditions differ from regular cruises. On expedition, you become a part of the experience rather than just observing it as a bystander. It's always fascinating for passengers to see the scientists in red parkas running off from the group to access their remote cameras, and you'll interact with them throughout your trip.

Spitsbergen Polar Safari passengers and expedition team gather on deck after a polar bear is spotted on the sea ice nearby. Source: Arctic 360° Video.

You might bump into a scientist on the bridge while you're watching the Captain chart the course ahead, or have one interpret your wildlife sightings on the open decks. They'll ride in Zodiacs with you, take their meals in the dining room with you, help you ashore and even join you in the lounge to chat. Researchers and experts-in-residence are an integral part of the expedition experience, in their formal presentations as well as everyday life onboard.

Want to learn more about planning your own Spitsbergen expedition?

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