Ny Ålesund, an International Research Community
The community of Ny Ålesund is truly international, with research groups from several different countries. I've been quite busy, and focused on my role in assisting the REU group with their research, which has meant that I haven't been too good about snooping out what others are doing. So recently I've tried to take the opportunity to get to see what others are doing.
Several countries have their own "stations" here – laboratory and living space. These countries include France, Germany, China, Italy, to name a few. And Norway, of course! The United States doesn't have it's own station here – partly that's because we have such good access to the Arctic in Alaska. (We rent space from the Norwegians, which is, as you might imagine, a lot cheaper than building our own station.)
Hanging with the Birds
I found out that there is a group studying the Kittiwake colony in the Blomstrandhalvøya Island, which is across Kongsfjord. So (totally out of character for an introverted guy like me) I boldly invited myself to join them on one of their days out studying the birds. They were so welcoming and seemed genuinely excited to share their research with someone else. The four graduate students who are doing the Kittiwake studies here are Rebecca Young from Cincinatti, Ohio, Charlotte Lassen from Denmark, Janik Schultner from Germany and Vegard Braathen from Norway. Quite an international group!
So today I got up early and met Rebecca Young and Charlotte Lassen for breakfast before the three of us headed out across the fjord to the Kittiwake colony. I had always assumed that bird researchers just spent their days behind a blind somewhere making notes about bird behavior, counting them, etc. While I was interested in seeing what they do, I was prepared for a boring six hours out there in the field. Boy was I wrong!
We anchored the boat and then began to walk up to the colony. The colony seemed to be up what looked to be practically a vertical wall. I assumed we'd be taking some back way around. But we walked right up to the base of this incredibly steep hill. Suddenly it hit me... we were walking straight up! It was definitely the steepest hill I've ever climbed. There were plenty of uneven patches of mossy sod to get a foothold, and I though, "oh good, I can hold on to those with my hands, too" – until I noticed the amazing amount of bird and reindeer poop on the ground. I would try my best not to use my hands on this climb!
The reason there was so much vegetation, and so much reindeer poop, is simple – fertilizer! With a kittiwake colony of many hundreds of birds, the amount of bird poop is a great fertilizer. Of course, what I didn't take into account when I packed up my stuff this morning was that birds might poop on me, too. Which they did. Many times. (As I write this my jacket and pants are in the washer – I really hope the bird poop comes out!) All part of the adventure!
Anyway, we hiked up to the top of the hill right up to the nesting area – the sound was amazing. All day we were constantly hearing the cacophony of squawking kittiwakes. At times they seemed to be quieter, and at other times something would set them off into a frenzy of very loud squawking – maybe it was a threat (like a glaucus gull coming to steal a kittiwake chick) or even another kittiwake trying to muscle in on someone else's nest. Whatever it was, at some times the noise was quite deafening.
So the nesting area is quite interesting – the kittiwakes came there several weeks ago to lay their eggs and to raise their chicks until they can fly. We're probably a couple of weeks away from the "fledging", or the time when the chicks can fly. After that the birds will leave their nests, not to return until next summer. Apparently many of the birds will return to the same nest year after year. They build their nests right into the cliff face – the rock is quite crumbly with lots of nooks and crannies for nest building.
To study such a large colony of birds requires a lot of organization. Before we left, Rebecca showed me the incredible chart the group uses to keep track of each nest and the birds and chicks they've see in the nests. They also have photographed and numbered each nest (there are well over a hundred nests in the cliff face!) From the photographs they can identify the nest when they go out to the island, and that way they can track individual birds.
There are three projects that Rebecca and Charlotte were working on today. The first is looking at the birds' metabolism, or the rate at which they expend energy. Charlotte is interested in seeing any changes in bird metabolism over several years. In order to do this study, she needs to inject them with a special kind of water called "doubly labeled water". In order to understand this, you need to remember that water is H2O (two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom) This is water where the Oxygen and one of the Hydrogens has been replaced with an isotope of those elements with a different number of neutrons than usual. So this exotic form of water, which is harmless to the birds, gets into the bird's system, and as it is used up it gets expelled through respiration. So, over time, the amount of "doubly labeled water" goes down – the faster this happens means the faster the birds are using energy.
Got that? Well, even if you didn't quite understand that, what Charlotte does is to inject the birds with the "doubly labeled water" and then she waits an hour and then takes a blood sample. While the bird is waiting, the bird is restrained in a special plastic container and put into a bag. Apparently this actually helps calm the bird down. The blood sample that Charlotte takes is sent off to a lab where the amount of the exotic water can be determined.
Rebecca is studying a part of the DNA called "telomeres". Telomeres are bits on the end of DNA strands that don't really code for anything, but play a role in protecting the DNA. As an animal ages, the length of the telomeres shrinks – scientists think that telomere length might be used to determine the age of an organism. So Rebecca is interested in assess birds' age and to see how different factors may affect birds' survival. For example, will changes in the environment affect how long birds tend to live?
The way Rebecca does her study is to capture a bird and then take a blood sample. The sample is then sent back to her lab where she can study the DNA. In order to prepare the blood sample to be transported back to her lab, she needs to use a device called a centrifuge which spins a container around at high speed. This will separate out the different parts of the blood, so, for example, she could study just the red blood cells if she wants.
A third study that the group is involved with is seeing how the kittiwakes respond to stress. In order to do this, they inject the birds with a hormone that will cause a stress reaction. They will then observe these birds over a period of a couple of days to see their behavior. They will also take a blood sample after a couple of days to analyze the blood.
So the team has left up on top of the hill a bunch of equipment – it's a little mobile lab out there! They even have a little generator to power the centrifuge. All the syringes and capillary tubes that they use to sample the blood are also left out there. In addition, there's even a container of liquid nitrogen brought out every few days so they can freeze the blood samples!
So the day was far from dull – the six hours went by quite fast as there was always something to do or look at. I was impressed at the skills that both women had at handling the birds.
One of the best out of context conversation bits I've heard in a long time (see if you can figure out what they were talking about!):
Rebecca: "Do you want to bleed, or shall I?"
Charlotte: "I want to bleed."
Rebecca: "Okay, then, I'll just observe and eat my sandwich."
A side note about the location of the kittiwake colony – it's on an island where there have been frequent polar bear sightings. I was a bit apprehensive about that, so of course I was extremely vigilant – and volunteered to hold the rifle! We didn't see a polar bear, although about 30 minutes after we left the island one was spotted! We did see polar bear tracks, however...
Some other international visits
Several days ago Rebecca and I got a tour of the Italian station here, which right now only has one person at the moment – Maurizio Buzzetto. Maurizio is manning the atmospheric monitoring instruments the Italian team has here. He took us on a tour of the instrumentation, which includes wind and temperature gauges at different heights, as well as air samplers which can determine different chemicals that are in the atmosphere. The data that is collected here can help monitor Arctic weather patterns and will be used for climate modeling.
The other night the folks from the Chinese station invited us in to see their station. They showed us around their lab space and living space. (Most of their research is around the microscopic life in the fjord.) The highlight of the visit to the Chinese station was seeing a video one of them took of the polar bear that wandered through town a couple of weeks ago!
Two days ago we were visited by a group of Korean high school students who were visiting the Korean station here. A couple of them were quite excited about seeing the "American lab", so I took them on a little tour of what we are doing here.
Ny Ålesund is truly an amazing place - it is truly international and it seems like everyone here has an interesting story to tell! And where else would I have been able to take off a day to study Kittiwakes in the middle of a month studying glaciers?