Rob Hardy: Fraser's Penguins


Rob Hardy



A cartoon in our paper showed an addled scientist in a wizard''s hat proclaiming, in our spate of winter weather, that global warming was the new global cooling. People have had a good deal of misunderstanding about global warming, and mocking egghead scientists might be satisfactory to those who want to say that there is no climate problem. If you could ask the Adélie penguins of Antarctica about the issue, they''d know firsthand without any scientific reports that their world is heating up. They are losing sea ice, an essential for their environment, and so they are dwindling in numbers and affecting the creatures that depend on them, and so on it goes. The Adélies would find it stupid that some humans think global warming is controversial, and so do the scientists who have studied them over the past decades.  


One of the chief investigators is Bill Fraser, who has spent big chunks of his life in Antarctica during the past thirty years. Journalist Fen Montaigne traveled to work with Fraser for five months in the Antarctic summer of 2005 - 2006, and has now written "Fraser''s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica" (Henry Holt). Encompassing geology, biology, chunks of Antarctic history, descriptions of living and working in a bleak and beautiful environment, and personality profiles of those who like being there, Montaigne''s book is a fine work of natural history to tell us of the penguins'' plight, which is also our own.  


Fraser is the scientist profiled in most detail here because of his lasting connection to Palmer Station, a U.S. science base of about 40 researchers just outside the Antarctic circle on a peninsula that sticks out toward Cape Horn of South America. They have the job of measuring objectively, weighing penguins and their chicks, counting colonies and eggs, tagging the birds with radios and so on. Objectivity does not mean detachment when it comes to penguins, which are some of the most well-loved animals on the planet.  


Adélies are classic penguins, with an upright stance, a roly-poly gait, and tuxedos. An ornithologist a hundred years ago called the Adélie a "smart and fussy little man in evening clothes with the tail of the black coat dragging on the ground, and who walks with the roll and swagger of an old salt just ashore from a long voyage." It is hard not to feel affection for the birds, but the scientists also feel admiration for them. Adélies are tenacious. Fraser has seen a penguin almost cut in half in an attack by a leopard seal stagger to its nest to deliver a load of food. The parents are slaves to their squawking chicks, which they rear for two months each year in territories of colonies which are a mess of guano and ill feeling. "One of the paradoxes of Adélie penguins," writes Montaigne, "is that they are simultaneously gregarious and irascible." They bother each other and they steal nesting pebbles if they can. When the chicks are at fledgling weight, the parents leave them and go on a migration of thousands of miles, returning to their native colonies each summer. 


It is a cycle that has stood them well in a hostile environment because the environment has been stable. Now it is not stable, and the penguins are hard wired for the stable version. They cannot adapt to the fast change, so they are suffering. There are inarguably higher temperatures these days in Antarctica. This brings more snow to the Adélies'' colony areas (the paradoxical effect is tied to sea ice shrinkage), and they need to build their nests in the pebble beds.  


Once the snow melts, it inundates the nests, and the penguins can do little for their eggs underwater. The extra snow also delays the start of mating and nesting season, so that the chicks are smaller and have less chance of surviving. They need every chance they can get, because huge predatory gulls called brown skuas are patrolling the colonies. The warmer seas reduce the extent of the sea ice. This means that there is less plankton, and thereby less of the shrimp-like krill which feed upon the plankton and upon which in turn the penguins (and seabirds, seals, and whales) feed.If it is harder to get krill, the Adélie adults have to spend longer in the sea on foraging trips, so they are absent longer, and the chicks, left for longer periods, are easier pickings for the skuas. Of course, a reduced number of penguins affects the living of the skuas, etc., etc. 


Certainly there have been changes in the environment before, but when Fraser first came to the Antarctic, he had no idea that he was going to be witnessing and documenting a rate of change that had never before been seen. The biology and meteorology is extraordinarily complex, but Fraser eventually linked warmer air and sea temperatures with Adélie declines. There is no arguing data; temperatures are rising, and in Antarctica (and the Arctic and Siberia) they are rising at an unprecedented acceleration. There is no arguing that Adélie colonies are simply dying out. Some of the little islands that have had thriving colonies for centuries now have none at all. One of the main islands Fraser studied, Litchfield, had 900 breeding pairs on it when he first came to the area, and Fraser and Montaigne are witness to the very last of it, a lone adult where throngs used to be. "Litchfield," says a field investigator, "is officially over."  


Fraser predicts that the penguins on the islands on which his studies have focused will be gone within his lifetime. This is not just happening in the Antarctic Peninsula, Fraser''s region of study, but all over the Antarctic. It''s true that there are millions of Adélie penguins around the region, but the disappearance of the Penguins in the Peninsula is indisputable evidence that the continent at the bottom of the world is starting to warm. There''s a dome of ice on it that is three miles deep in some places, and that will melt, and the oceans will rise and global weather patterns will change.  


The "canary in the coal mine" analogy is inescapable. This, though, is not a book of polemics. Montaigne produces wonderful descriptions of life on a penguin colony and on the alien, beautiful frozen desert where he worked that summer. His descriptions of human life in the research station are just as interesting. There is collegiality and good fellowship, and lots of alcohol, sometimes served over ice that is a thousand years old. There are dips into the 34-degree ocean, and since many of the researchers are young and unattached, there are liaisons and even an engagement celebrated with a phallic ice sculpture. There is also a lot of work, fieldwork done in the most dire of environments, involving "the patient execution of repetitious tasks." Essential to the work, for instance, are small counters used to tally the number of penguins in a colony; sure, the task used to be harder because the colonies were bigger, but still, counting hundreds of squirming and shifting identical penguins is not easy. The fieldworkers are busy doing their counts and other research, and it is just happenstance that they are documenting changes that will affect far more than their penguins, skuas, and seals. Read Montaigne''s book and you cannot help admiring the rugged little penguins and the intrepid researchers. It''s little comfort that if ecological disaster is going to come, Fraser and his team will be competently documenting it one season after another.  



Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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