Subscribe for 33¢ / day

There’s not just one Professor Burnham living in the Quad-City area and studying the effects of pollutants produced around the world on certain Arctic birds.

Jennifer and Kurt Burnham, who live in Orion, Ill., with their two young sons, take a team approach to their research and have for the past four years been studying migration patterns and the effects of methyl mercury on some birds in northwest Greenland, the country where they met when both were conducting research for their doctorate degrees.

The couple believes the birds’ problems eventually could become our own, and they are “trying to fill a hole in the circumpolar mercury data sets.”

“The negative effects of coal-fired power plants on climate change are going to outweigh any kind of impact that they might have on a bird population,” says Jennifer, who is an associate professor of geography at Augustana College in Rock Island.

She says that all of the fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) adversely affect the environment in some way, mostly in terms of climate change.

“But locally, our own coal-fired plants contribute to the mercury we’ve found in Greenland,” she says, “because there is mercury in the coal, and after it is burned, the wind brings it there.”

She adds that when mercury enters a water system, it is converted to a toxin that is harmful to both birds and humans.

“So far, the water in northwest Greenland is rich with nutrients, the breeding colonies of some birds are the largest in Greenland and there’s less hunting pressure in that region,” she says.

They are not seeing enough mercury to undermine the birds’ ability to reproduce, but they think “it’s only a matter of time” until it will.

They collect blood samples (with help the past three years from Augustana students) and tag Arctic terns and black-legged kittiwakes, a member of the gull family that is among the most numerous types of seabirds, to determine their migratory routes. They follow migration patterns by putting a small geo-locator unit on the birds’ legs.

“We catch the terns on their nest by setting a net that then safely drops on them,” she explains.

The big trick, though, is catching those same birds the next year to retrieve the data about their long migration.

Kurt’s research has actually been going on for 20 years. He is primarily an ornithologist, and his father was with an international group called the Peregrine (falcon) Fund, so he grew up around wildlife biologists. He runs his nonprofit High Arctic Institute ( from the family’s Quad-City area home.

The couple travels to Greenland from the end of June through the middle of August, which is summertime even in the Arctic Circle, and the Burnhams note that it is getting warmer, sooner, in Greenland than it used to.

“When I started working in northwest Greenland in 1993, a normal warm day was in the high 40s and now it’s in the high 60s or even low 70s,” Kurt says.

He and his research crew go to Greenland every summer while his wife goes when she can get away. (Their sons are 3 years and 19 months old.)

The Burnhams have about five specific objectives each year. Some will be ongoing goals for many years, some for only a few years and some for just one season.

The migration question

Kurt says it’s important to know exactly where birds migrate.

“It’s really hard to detect any long-term changes in population with these birds in just a few years,” he adds. “It can take many years, or even decades, of research to get it right.”

They now know, through satellite tagging, where Peregrine falcons (a bird known to make the Quad-Cities its home) migrate for the winter: South America.

“We need to understand which areas might need additional environmental protection,” Kurt says, “like from oil exploration or mining.”

He says the Greenland birds, and tens of millions of birds from Canada, migrate back and forth over the Atlantic Ocean to southern Greenland and northern Newfoundland (a large island off the eastern coast of Canada), so it’s critical to keep those areas clear of pollutants such as pesticides.

Kurt also says it’s important that we care about the future of other Arctic animals such as polar bears, even though most of us will never see one in the wild.

And he adds that we should care about climate change because of the rising number of “billion-dollar insurance claims” caused by more frequent severe weather events such as the recent Superstorm Sandy that clobbered New York and New Jersey.

“You’re going to see some places get colder, actually, he notes, “and maybe here in the Midwest (remembering this past summer) we may shift from getting much of our rain in the spring and summer to getting it in the fall and winter.”

That will affect farmers, barge traffic and firms such as Moline-based Deere & Co., so it’s vital to “‘think globally, but act locally” to help the environment.

“It’s pretty simple,” he adds. “If nothing else, recycle, buy the more efficient light bulbs and drive a fuel-efficient vehicle.”

His wife wants to emphasize that while we perceive areas such as Greenland to be pristine, it’s important to recognize that pollution from the Midwest can have a negative effect on faraway places like the Arctic.

Having an effect on the bigger picture, though, could be a hard pill to swallow, she says, since most Americans have a very comfortable lifestyle.

“We should trust the data we’ve collected and verified” about climate change,” she adds. “It’s 2013 and the scientific community has figured it out: We know the causes (of climate change) and we should be working on the solutions now.”