Journalist and author Fen Montaigne spent five months on the Antarctic Peninsula working on the field team of penguin expert and ecologist Bill Fraser, who has for several decades studied the impact of the region's rapidly rising temperatures on Adélie penguins and other wildlife. That story is chronicled in his new book, Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctic and in the following pictures.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a legendary Antarctic explorer who participated in Robert Falcon Scott's 1910-1913 expedition to the South Pole, had this to say about the world's most popular bird: "All the world loves a penguin. Had we but half their physical courage none could stand against us. [They are] fighting against bigger odds than any other bird, and fighting always with the most gallant pluck."
The movie, "The March of the Penguins," cemented the public's affection for the largest penguin species, the waist-high emperor. But equally beloved is the only other penguin species that lives and breeds exclusively in Antarctica -- the classic tuxedoed penguin, the Adélie.
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Not long ago I spent five months in Antarctica working on the field team of penguin expert and ecologist Bill Fraser, who has done groundbreaking work on the impact of rapidly rising temperatures on ice-dependent Adélie penguins. I came away with remarkable respect for the instinctual intelligence of the feisty, knee-high Adélies, which migrate hundreds of miles every spring to the very colonies where they were hatched, survive the onslaughts of leopard seals and predatory seabirds, and raise a pair of chicks to fledging in less than two months in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.
But as Fraser has shown, the Adélies in the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula have now encountered an obstacle that they have been unable to overcome: soaring temperatures. That region, which juts toward the southern tip of South America, is warming faster than virtually any place on earth, with winter temperatures rising 11 degrees F in 60 years. Sea ice now covers the Southern Ocean off the western Antarctic Peninsula three fewer months a year than in 1979 -- bad news for Adélie penguins that rely on the frozen ocean as a feeding platform in winter. And Antarctic krill, the shrimp-like creatures that are a key source of food for Adélies, appear to be in decline, as their life history is also intimately intertwined with sea ice.
Fraser has witnessed these changes during the course of three decades of working in Antarctica. Since he first arrived at Palmer Station, a small U.S. science base, in 1974, Adélie penguin populations in the vicinity have plunged more than 80 percent, from roughly 35,000 breeding pairs to 5,600. Other Adélie penguin rookeries in the region have suffered similar declines.
Some 2.5 million breeding pairs of Adélie penguins still live in Antarctica, and the species is a long way from facing extinction. But the precipitous warming of the northern Antarctic Peninsula, and the disappearance of Adélies there, is a sign that the world's coldest continent -- a massive dome of ice three miles deep in places -- is starting to warm. Should that warming accelerate, as is likely, not only will the Adélies be feeling the heat, but we will also, as a melting Antarctic will mean rising seas and changing global weather patterns.
Bill Fraser and other scientists who work at the poles are sentinels. And though the world seems to be paying scant attention, Fraser can tell us one thing with certainty: The profound changes he has witnessed in Antarctica will soon be heading our way.