Lessons From An
By Meredith Hooper
20 August, 2007
2 January 2002
The night before arriving
at Palmer, Bill gives me a briefing. Dr Bill Fraser is a seabird ecologist,
one of an inner group of US scientists who have dedicated themselves
to Antarctic research.
We sit squeezed between bags
of kit in the small cabin he shares with his partner and co-worker,
Donna Patterson. Finding a place to talk on the Gould isn't easy. Videos
dominate the lounge; the bridge is cramped. People are ready to start
work and haven't. Most are just passing the time, or feeling sick. But
Bill can't stop. He has been in the field almost continually for over
a year – last summer at Palmer, followed by a slug of winter cruises
in the biologically rich Marguerite Bay area south of Palmer.
The news is shocking. The
season, Bill says flatly, has gone to hell. Palmer's Adélie penguins
are in crisis, barely holding on. The weather has been relentless, dire.
The seabird work is under real pressure. "We are arriving to a
catastrophe, walking into a bitter scenario produced by climate change,"
he says. "The Adélie penguins don't have the capacity to
survive the drastic changes that are occurring. There's no doubt."
The real penguin losses in
Antarctica are happening on the Antarctic Peninsula, where the greatest
warming is occurring. Bill describes landing on the low, ice-enclosed
Dion Islands during last winter's cruise in Marguerite Bay. In 1948,
21-year-old Bernard Stonehouse, surveying for the British with a husky
team over dodgy sea ice, discovered an emperor penguin colony on the
Dions, the furthest north these penguins breed.
Bill arrived at dawn one
August morning. Washed pink sky, pearly grey ice, soft-focus light.
He found just nine lonely pairs. Since Bernard made the first studies
of an estimated 500 birds, the colony has been little visited. Outside
influences can't be discounted. There can be no protective fences around
vulnerable bird populations to exclude helicopters or passing yachts.
But for Bill, the sight of those remnant pairs of emperors at a critical
period of their brooding phase was deeply symbolic. "It was the
saddest sight. They won't survive. They were the only known emperor
penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula."
Each summer, beginning in
October, the seabird team at Palmer record their data and observations.
The focus is on the birds of Bill's patch, the Adélie penguins
nesting on five inner islands and a few outer islands. Year after year
Bill has worked to find out what affects the survival rate of the Palmer
Bill: "Each season here
at Palmer we do what we always do. Now ecology deals us a wild card:
unprecedented snow. My penguins are in difficulties." But, ever
the scientist: "In effect, a natural experiment is occurring. Hypotheses
that have been in development for a long time are being tested. There
will be measurable results by the end of February." This season
will be different from anything ever recorded. I've got a lot to catch
up on. Next morning, we slip in sideways to Antarctica.
Seeing for myself: 8 January 2002
The sun shone day after day, my first summer at Palmer, and the Adélies
panted in temperatures around 0C. The ground was pinky brown, stained
with the guano of thousands of penguin meals, the discarded remnants
of hundreds of thousands of krill and small fish, each individually
located in the ocean, caught in a penguin's beak, swallowed and transported
back to the land.
Parents ran up from the water
clean and shiny, and the stones on the ground clinked as they passed.
At the nests the relieved partner left, dirty but duty done, pulling
its body in tall and thin, flippers tucked close, weaving and swerving
through the gauntlet of aggressive nest-sitters like a rugby player
trying to avoid tackles. There's a revelling in the intense activity
of a penguin summer. Its rhythm catches you up. It's there in all the
accounts – the early explorers, scientists, delighted visitors,
dedicated penguin observers, everyone engrossed in the privilege of
watching, the luck of being there. Becoming in a small way part of it,
because they are tolerated. Stop watching, and you miss something. Keep
watching and you begin to recognise the stages.
But this time there is so
little noise. So little smell. Such small groups. So few chicks. An
almost complete absence of guano, that starburst of pink radiating out
from each nest, that signal of occupancy, of chicks at home, of regular
feeding, of the need to feed, of rotation of parents with their full
bellies coming back from the ocean. Some of the smaller colonies have
only one successful nest with one chick, very occasionally two, under
the one bird. Seeing the Adélies for myself is shocking. In my
head are memories of busy, functioning penguin colonies. The din of
living, the pervasive smell of food being crammed in and processed out.
Of beaks snapping and clashing, of the haze of dust and feathers rising
over massed nests.
By the end of the first week
in January 1999, nests were beginning to lose their discrete shapes,
be trodden down, the carefully accumulated nest pebbles scattered. Woolly
grey chicks were starting to wander. Some clustered in mini-crèches,
long flippers hanging like oars, feet too big, like clowns' feet. Single
penguins patrolled the edges of colonies, facing outwards, watchful,
cocky. Skuas swooped, or strutted, bold, looking for opportunity. The
cackling, calling, grunting, the insistent cheepings of chicks, the
strong distinctive smell, filled the air.
Now, at the same point, the
end of the first week of January, most chicks are still very young,
helpless, lying on their bellies. The colony outriders – those
outward-facing singles – are hardly in evidence. Now there are
so many singles, or penguins just standing around in twos and threes,
it is difficult to understand if pairs really exist. Difficult to see
if a nest is still in place or scattered, as in the crèching
There is less aggression.
Less need for a penguin to run the gauntlet to its nest. Less pecking,
and flapping. Quieter, not hectic. Subdued. There seems a loss of structure.
Colonies do not appear to be acting as a unit. There isn't a sense of
a society engaged in group activity. Last time, each colony, each subset,
seemed to me like a suburb, most households roughly similar. Now the
rookery feels like an urban city in a war zone. Some colonies are reasonably
active, some almost non-functioning. But in general the city is severely
depleted. There appear to be very few "families", lots of
singles and childless partners.
One leopard seal has been
working the area periodically, another full-time. Pickings are easy
at Torgersen, where birds have to stack in bottlenecks to come ashore.
Beach access has been confined by snow to two narrow locations, and
the water churns as a leopard thrashes a penguin out of its skin. Birds
grab morsels. If the dead penguin is one of a functioning pair –
this season that's not just a loss, it's a disaster.
There's a small amount of
pebble-carrying and nest-tidying, but very little. I see one pair attempting
a fumbling copulation: beaks clacking, flippers waving, male attempting
to balance on the female's back. Many birds are sitting in the brooding
position. But nothing is happening. What do birds do when the eggs have
failed? Does the pair bonding remain? Does alternate feeding continue
when there's no need to relieve each other on the nest? I find just
one empty egg on a rock; but no eggshells. I see dead penguins on the
ground, bones and sinew, but the carcasses could belong to last year,
or the year before. The skuas seem particularly confident. Where have
all the penguins gone?
In 1988, NSF chartered the
MV Polar Duke to undertake one of the first Antarctic winter research
cruises, surveying 581 square kilometres of the Scotia and Weddell Seas.
Bill was on board. He laughs
– an announcement came over the ship's systems, "will all
scientists, and" – pause – "biologists come to
In the sea ice, the ship's
spotlights picked out thousands of Adélie penguins standing and
lying on the floes in the darkness. But chinstrap penguins were observed
swimming by the thousand in open water. Adélies and chinstraps
both eat mainly krill in their summer diets. Their general appearance
and size are similar. They have broad ecological similarities. Yet here
they were, occupying very different habitats in winter. Bill: "The
sight was an absolute wake-up call. A major turning point in my thinking."
In Antarctica, penguins were
considered "indicator species". The food chain involved was
thought to be remarkably simple. Large animals at the top, such as whales
and penguins, ate krill, the small shrimp-like Euphasia superba which
fed on phytoplankton, the grass of the sea. The hypothesis was that,
as krill-eaters, penguins could reveal if too many tons of krill were
being hauled out of the southern seas by the proliferating Eastern European
fisheries: declining numbers of penguins would indicate too much fishing.
Research was being carried out on penguin numbers along the Antarctic
Peninsula, focusing on the five inner-island Adélie study sites
at Palmer and a mix of sites further north at King George Island in
the South Shetland Islands, where Adélies, gentoos and chinstraps
nested. Concerns about managing resources drove the research, as well
as concerns about changing the ecosystem.
But there was also the whale
population reduction hypothesis: not a krill deficit, but an abundance.
So many krill-eating baleen whales had been hunted and killed since
the 1920s that there must, it was argued, be a "krill surplus"
now that hunting had declined. The problem was the figures. At King
George Island, the data of American researchers Wayne and Susan Trivelpiece
showed the numbers of chinstrap penguins increasing, while Adélie
numbers seesawed. The chinstraps' range was expanding south down the
western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Abundant krill could account
for the increase.
But Adélies were also
krill eaters. And, at the Palmer study sites, Adélies were in
decline. Their numbers had decreased from 15,202 breeding pairs in 1975,
when the data set began. Bill: "Intuitively the numbers did not
fit together. Hypothesis. Data. The two didn't mesh. Classic science.
I had pieces of a puzzle floating around in my head. I had a bunch of
numbers lined up into a graph and I didn't know what they meant."
Bill says his next insight
came immediately after the 1988 Polar Duke winter cruise, at a symposium
on Antarctic biology organised in Tasmania by the Scientific Committee
on Antarctic Research (SCAR). Listening to data on population increases
and decreases among various species provided a "quantum leap"
in Bill's ability to understand. What if the winter habitat of Adélies
and chinstraps was significant? The winter cruise had shown that Adélies
were obligate inhabitants of sea ice. "Adélie numbers were
decreasing, chinstraps increasing: were we seeing a change in the relative
availability of the two species' habitat? If so, what was the mechanism
for the change?'
Overwinter survival is crucial
to penguins. Dead penguins can't come back to breed. Underweight penguins
with insufficient blubber insulation cannot sustain the brooding fasts.
Overwinter survival, to use scientist-speak, can play a key role in
driving long-term populations. Central to Bill's argument was the quantity
and extent of sea ice. Had it changed? Was it reducing?
3 February, Litchfield Island
There are no sounds but the
wash of the sea, the occasional calls of skuas. Every penguin is gone.
The nests are abandoned. Listen to the silence. The silence of absence.
The sound of failure.
Bill stands tall, still,
on the carefully sorted pebbles. Standing where it should not be possible
to stand, in the centre of a penguin colony, in the middle of summer.
This season, on Litchfield Island, only seven pairs of penguins managed
to keep eggs until hatching. Eighteen days ago, Bill counted four pairs
of penguins in one colony, one pair in another. Five days ago, seven
penguins remained. This space was still theirs. Now they have gone.
The sound of extinction is approaching. In two to three years, Bill
says, Litchfield will be vacant.
The map drawn in 1957 at
Base N, showing the locations of local bird colonies, marks six Adélie
colonies on the south-east peninsula of Litchfield. When Bill first
arrived at Palmer in 1975, those colonies were extinct; 884 breeding
pairs of Adélies were nesting further to the west, but still
in the shadow of the high central hills, still on the island's southern
slopes. With temperature change, with increased snow, the sites proved
lethal. Storms tracking west to east between South America and the peninsula
scoured snow from north-facing surfaces and dumped it in the lee. Penguin
numbers fell rapidly.
Here is climate change in
action, Antarctica as a living experiment. Litchfield Island is a precisely
located landscape, with just two key species, Adélies and brown
skuas. Their relationship is straightforward; the numbers have been
collected. Contributing factors have been unpacked and understood, decline
tracked over time. The hypothesis is clear, the outcome predicted.
Data from Litchfield had
already revealed that, whenever an Adélie colony dropped below
a certain number, the chicks were vulnerable to predation by brown skuas.
Litchfield has six brown skua pairs. They are birds with long histories,
many of them tracked.
As the population declined,
they destroyed their meal table. This season, Litchfield's Adélie
penguins failed to hatch chicks and so failed to deliver brown skua
meals. This season, Litchfield's brown skuas fed until there were no
Adélie eggs left, and no chicks. Nothing. Bill needed proof.
Now he has it.
Shifting weather patterns
challenge the precisely balanced interconnectedness of living things,
their dependence on established networks to find food, to reproduce
– to survive. Litchfield is an indisputable case study of the
Antarctica is original planet.
It's what draws me back, the noise stripped away, the challenge to see,
think, feel, in this uncluttered place. But it is Antarctica's starkness,
this freedom from the complexity of much of the world, that gives it
crucial advantages for scientists, as a place to study climate change.
No cities, no agricultural practices, no highways, or change of land
Here, the physical environment
is not relegated and regulated. The ecological networks, the food chains,
are relatively straightforward, comparatively simple systems far from
the confusing signals of most of the rest of the world. The requirement
on every living thing continually to negotiate temporary occupancy,
to manage the complex interplay of climate and place, is palpable.
Living things flourish where
they can, while they can. Salutary reminders for us humans, cocooned
by urban living, lulled into assuming we can somehow ignore, or forget,
the changeability and vulnerability of the thin layer of planet we use,
the tiny, damp, curved space we happen to occupy at a pleasantly warm
moment. Here on the Antarctic Peninsula, impacts of warming can be tracked.
It's a clear, stripped-down preview of what could occur elsewhere. It's
an unpacking of the ways climate change can reveal itself. It's a prologue
to the way climate change can happen. At Palmer, this ferocious summer,
we do not know the mechanisms delivering this weather, or how the weather
relates to the peninsula's warming. But I can document what it means
to be here.
Public perceptions of climate
change have tumbled and eddied and swept forward, like branches carried
by a river in a flood. Some have got stuck on snags or accreted detritus,
but enough have travelled swiftly with the rushing water for an increasing
acceptance. Our planet is irrefutably warming. No doubts, no buts. What
has to matter is the climate, now, at this precise moment, with the
living load our planet is currently carrying. And the speed of change.
Richard Alley, US polar geoscientist,
speaking at the International Glaciological Society Symposium in Cambridge,
August 2006: If you push too hard at the climate, something flips. People
want to know. What does the future hold? When do we get in trouble?
Everyone wants answers. They want predictions. We can't predict. But
we can look at what will help us predict. Understanding ice, and measuring
the mass balance of the ice sheets. With concentrated research effort
we can do these things. That will tell us what will happen, and why.
The ice matters. For a long
time I've been listening to ecologists, climatologists, meteorologists,
geologists, oceanographers, palaeobiologists, palaeontologists; now,
at this Cambridge symposium, I'm surrounded by people who are driven
by ice – who study ice shelves, sea ice, glaciers, ice sheets,
ice cores, frozen ground.
The ones who work on the
Antarctic Peninsula accept my description of the ferocious summer for
the infamous season of 2001-02. The ferocious summer was like a river
violently flooding. It permanently changed the river bed. It changed
the country. A one-off – but it could happen again on the peninsula.
It nearly did in 2004-05. A blocking high got established, then it broke
What has happened is that
the frequencies have shifted.
To Richard Alley, sea levels
have risen in the past. People dealt with them. We as humans can respond,
effectively. And he pulled up a powerful image from deep in our cultures.
God, according to the Bible, sent a rainbow to promise man that he would
never again allow Earth to be flooded.
But I think of Palmer, in
the ferocious summer. Rising temperatures sent a rare rainbow. A potent
symbol, but potent in a different way. In high latitudes, water comes
from the sky packaged as frozen crystals, and stays frozen, as ice and
snow. With increasing warmth, water gets delivered in liquid form, destabilising
ice and snow and living things. As was happening at Palmer in 2001-02,
that ferocious summer of rapid climate change. Perhaps the biblical
rainbow isn't a promise. It is a reminder.
This is an edited extract from The Ferocious Summer: Palmer's penguins
and the warnings of Antarctica by Meredith Hooper (Profile, £20).
To order a copy for the special price of £18 (free P&P) call
Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited
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