Fraser’s Penguins

I decided to read Fen Montaigne’s book Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica because of what I understood it would have to say about climate change. It does say very important things on that subject, but along the way it proved a fascinating account of the life of the Adélie penguins of the Antarctic Peninsula and of the scientific monitoring which has recorded the welfare of their colonies in the vicinity of Palmer Station for more than three decades. As well, the author provides memorable descriptions of the land, sea and skyscapes and the pleasure he took from them. His weaving in some of the impressions of the early Antarctic explorers added interesting historical perspective. The book is a rewarding read on many fronts.

Bill Fraser is a scientist who for thirty years has observed and studied the Adélie colonies at Palmer Station. Much of the material for Montaigne’s book was gathered during the spring and summer of 2005-2006 when the author spent five months working as a member of Fraser’s field team. Solid work it was too – painstakingly measuring, counting, checking, closely examining excrement, weighing, taking opportunities as the weather allowed. Montaigne gains credentials for the task of portraying scientists at work by his months of painstaking work with the team, though it is his ability as a writer which brings the scene to life. The book demonstrates the invaluable contribution patient and intelligent journalism can make in interpreting science to a wide general readership.

The book also demonstrates how far-reaching is the mounting evidence of drastic climate change and how many scientists in many different disciplines are uncovering that evidence. Fraser began quite early to suspect that global warming was affecting the Adélies on the Antarctic Peninsula. By the 1980s sea ice was decreasing, the ice-loving Adélie populations were faltering, ice-avoiding species like chinstrap penguins and fur seals were increasing. “It reeked of habitat change due to a warming climate.”  In 1991 he was lead author in a paper arguing that it was primarily shrinking sea ice that was leading to the growth of chinstrap populations and the decline of the Adélies. Rejected by Science and Nature the paper was finally published in 1992 in Polar Biology, as one of the first scientific papers to suggest that global warming was beginning to nibble at the edges of Antarctica. A prominent scientist who at the time criticised his thesis as “certainly premature” now grants that the accumulated evidence of the last two decades leaves “no doubt” that declining sea ice has been a crucial factor affecting penguin populations.

The intricacies of the Adélies’ relationship with their Antarctic Peninsula breeding environment are where the effect of global warming on the steadily declining populations of the birds has gradually become more manifest to Fraser. For example, during the 1990s it became apparent that there was increasing spring snowfall in the Palmer area. Although counter-intuitive, more snow was consistent with a marine environment that was seeing sea ice shrink. Less ice means more open water, leading to increased evaporation. That moisture forms as precipitation, which tends to fall as snow along the Antarctic Peninsula. There was also an influx of warmer air and storms from the north, which brought more snow.  The Adélies need nesting grounds free from snow to successfully build their stone nests. Increased snowfall can delay nesting and meltwater can lead to addled eggs. Delayed nesting can put hatching out of sync with the peak of krill abundance. Fraser discovered that heavy spring snows led to lighter fledged chicks throughout the Palmer area, meaning birds which were less likely to make it through the winter months. A series of such insights are explored in the book, evidence that the Adélies of the Antarctic Peninsula are a lesson in how rapidly ecology and ecosystems can change: “In geological time,” says Fraser, “it’s a nanosecond.”

It’s certainly too fast for the Adélies to adapt to. Their evolution is so finely attuned to the environment that even tiny differences can affect their survival. They need a snow-free habitat by the end of November. If they don’t get it their breeding success is poor. Fraser comments that the birds can’t simply alter their breeding patterns because of the snow. “The birds are just hardwired and they don’t adjust. They are hardwired into oblivion.” It is that descent, manifest in the dramatic decline in numbers, that provides a dismal aspect to Fraser’s work. It’s not only the snow that’s contributing to the Adélies decline: the deleterious effect of dwindling sea ice on their food supply, especially krill and silverfish, is apparent from his observations.

Fraser and his colleagues see the changes sweeping down the rapidly warming Antarctic Peninsula as a prelude and warning of things to come worldwide. Montaigne picks out some sobering messages. One is that our unprecedented burning of fossil fuels can result in abrupt and unpredictable regional changes. Another is that although the continent proper, a vast ice cap of enormous thickness, is showing only small signs of warming, the changes hitting the peninsula represent the first breach in the citadel. If the rise in greenhouse gases continues and leads to temperature increases of 2 to 5 degrees in this century, then the current gnawing at the edges of Antarctica will become large bites and bring about destabilising changes to the ice shelves, ice sheets and sea ice as well as the vast numbers of seabirds, seals and other creatures whose life histories have evolved within the Antarctic world. A consequent disruption of alarming proportions in terms of sea level rise and alterations to the global climate system will follow for the world beyond the bounds of the Southern Ocean.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet seems most vulnerable after the Antarctic Peninsula. Montaigne talks with Robert Bindschadler, one of the researchers studying West Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier’s speedy slide into the sea. The researchers are firmly of the opinion that ocean heat is getting to the ice and causing the changes. “So even if you isolate Antarctica on the surface from global warming, there’s this back door – that [ocean] heat is still getting to this part of the ice sheet.” They estimate that if all the ice from the ice sheets that feed the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers were to flow into the Southern Ocean, global sea levels could increase by as much as five feet. Nor does Bindschadler consider this a remote possibility. He’s not so sure it couldn’t happen in his lifetime.

But that’s a big picture. The smaller world of the beleaguered Adélie colonies of the peninsula also carries warnings. Fraser knows that the earth’s climate has often see-sawed in the past, and that there were ecological consequences accompanying it. But this time the change is being driven by the rapid burning of fossil fuels and the planet is teeming with people as it wasn’t in previous eras of climate change such as the last glaciation.  “Never has change like this taken place with so many people who need these systems to survive. When I look back at these incredible changes here, that’s what’s running in the back of my mind.”

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5 thoughts on “Fraser’s Penguins”

  1. Bryan, can I just thank you for your wide reading and thoughtful, accomplished reviews here at Hot Topic. Only trouble is that it induces too many book purchases!

  2. The hardwiring referred to, equates the penguins to salmon, they have specific survival instinct that has worked until now. You do not have to go far afield from Palmer Station to see glacier retreat that accompanies the warming. Across the bay a new island, Amsler Island has formed in 2004. The island was created by glacier retreat.

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