Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Antarctica's penguins, 12 years later

Flying back from Prague, I had a chance to catch up on my reading and ran across this New Yorker piece on the retreat of Adelie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula and the work of penguin expert Bill Fraser.

In 1998, I visited many of the same locations on the Antarctic Peninsula while researching my first book, Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas, and interviewed Fraser about how climate change was turning the regional ecosystem upside down. Penguins were being attacked by fleas (whose eggs were now surviving the winter) while snow was overwhelming the Adelie's breeding sites. On the islands around the United States' Palmer Station, the penguins were in retreat, as was the 10,000 year old glacier behind the station.

What's astonishing is just how quickly things have gone from bad to worse, as the New Yorker piece makes clear. The pace of change -- be it penguins, glaciers, or floating ice shelves -- has exceeded the wildest dreams of the glaciologists, ecologists, and climate experts I spoke with in 1998-99. Indeed, the same is true for many of the other issues I raised in Ocean's End, including the pace of sea level rise threatening small island states like the Marshall Islands, the decline of coral reefs in Belize and other countries and, most dramatically, the hurricane threat to New Orleans.

On the bright side, the Black Sea is showing clear signs of recovery and the U.S. appears to have finally turned the corner on fisheries management. Unfortunately, neither will be much help to the penguins.

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