In a new book, a veteran journalist spends five months with a researcher studying the effects of a melting world on ice-dependent penguins
By Jennifer Pinkowski
Bill Fraser’s decades-long research on the impact of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula's decreasingly icy ecosystem—and, most famously, its tuxedoed inhabitants—is the subject of a new book.
Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica (Henry Holt and Co., $26) details the five months Yale Environment 360 senior editor and author Fen Montaigne ( Reeling in Russia ) spent in Antarctica with the ecologist studying thousands of Adélie penguins during their breeding season.
“It’s the tale of how Fraser came to believe—and I think it’s widely accepted now—that warming is the main cause behind the drop in the penguin populations,” Montaigne told SolveClimate News.
In a narrative cataloguing the day-to-day research on the Adélie penguins conducted by Fraser’s team, Montaigne also delves into the natural history of Antarctica; its allure for explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose ship Endurance was trapped and slowly crushed by pack ice; and the sharp impact of global warming on a pristine, unearthly environment that Montaigne calls “the closest thing to heaven on Earth.”
Since 1974, Fraser, a researcher with the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) and president of Polar Oceans Research Group, has been studying the ecosystem of the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula, where the midwinter temperature has risen 11°F in just 60 years, making it one of the three most rapidly warming regions on the planet. (The other two are Siberia and the Arctic.)
Montaigne first visited Antarctica in 2004 to cover Fraser’s research for National Geographic. He spent a month tailing the scientist from his base at Palmer Station, one of three U.S. research centers on Antarctica.
In that month he was “so taken with the place, and the penguins, and how dramatic the warming was” that he was inspired to dig deeper into the subject.
Among other events he witnessed, notable was the collapse of a “big, big chunk” of ice hundreds of feet wide from the Marr Ice Piedmont glacier. Once connected to a rocky peninsula, “it just collapsed because the ice was retreating so fast,” Montaigne said. When it fell, it opened up a channel between two bodies of water that had been separated for thousands of years.
Melting Sea Ice Triggers Cascade Effect
Funded by an Antarctic Artists and Writers Grant from the National Science Foundation, Montaigne returned in October 2005 as an unpaid member of Fraser’s three-person birding team. He spent five months weighing, tagging and counting Adélie penguins in a 15-mile-wide research area near Palmer Station.
Since the mid 1970s, the penguin population in this zone has dropped some 85 percent to about 5,000, a depletion rate mirrored in other colonies on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula. There are some 2.5 million Adélie penguins in all of Antarctica.
The main cause is melting sea ice in the Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula where glaciers have retreated nearly 90 percent in the last three decades. There are now three fewer months of sea ice every year than there were in 1979, which means fewer krill larvae at the sea-ice edge and fewer silverfish eggs able to take refuge and mature beneath it.
Penguins use the sea ice as a feeding platform to feed on both, which means that the lack of sea ice is a triple whammy. It lowers the penguins' two main food sources at the same time that it limits their access to an increasingly slim supply.
Higher sea and air temperatures have also led to both more snow and more snow melt, both of which are problematic for the penguins. Deeper snowfall makes it harder to build nests. And once the snow melts, penguins find their eggs swimming in pools of icy water.
Meanwhile, Gentoo penguins are moving south to Antarctica, replacing the Adélies. Where there were once few fur seals there are now thousands.
“Ice-loving, ice-dependent species are fairing poorly, and ice-avoiding species are moving in. It’s kind of a natural process,” Montaigne said, hastening to add, “I’m not saying it’s a good process.”
Fraser’s Penguins documents the impact of climate change in a region that is on a longer time curve than the Arctic.
“Antarctica is a huge ice sheet one and a half times the size of the U.S. that is sometimes three miles deep,” Montaigne noted. “So it’s going to be a long time before it begins to melt in earnest. But warming has already breached this fortress of ice. That’s what’s important. Warming is more than nibbling at the edges. Warming has come to Antarctica.”
The question is, Montaigne said, “Once it hits in earnest, can we bar the door? In 50 years, 100 years, sea levels are going to just surge.”
Image: Fen Montaigne
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