By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Why Climategate doesn’t matter (VI)

Adélie penguin

Adélie penguin

The series explained.

In the current issue of the New Yorker, the environmental journalist Fen Montaigne reports on the decline of the Adélie penguin in the northwest Antarctic Peninsula — a decline directly traceable to a catastrophic loss of sea ice in recent decades, compounded by an increase in snowfall, which interferes with the penguins’ ability to protect their eggs.

Unfortunately, the article is not online, though you can listen to Montaigne talk about it here and here. But Montaigne includes a litany of disturbing statistics in his report:

  • The average annual temperature in the region is nearly 5 degrees warmer today than it was in 1951.
  • Winter temperatures have risen 11 degrees during the past 60 years, an increase that is five times higher than the worldwide average.
  • Sea ice off the peninsula arrives 54 days later in the fall and melts 31 days sooner in the spring than was the case in 1979.
  • Eighty-seven percent of the glaciers along the Antarctic Peninsula are retreating.

Although the Adélie population has collapsed in the warmer parts of Antarctica, the penguins continue to thrive in colder regions. But if the warming trends continue, extinction is a real possibility.

The problem, according to Bill Fraser, the research scientist who is Montaigne’s principal source (and the subject of a book Montaigne is writing), is that changes that might normally take place over the course of centuries are instead being compressed into a few decades, making it impossible for the Adélies to adapt.

“What we’re looking at here is an entire ecosystem that is changing, and it’s not changing in hundreds of years, which is what we used to be taught,” Fraser tells Montaigne. “It’s changed so quickly that it has encompassed the research lives of a few people who have spent a lifetime here.”

Addendum: In an earlier installment, I noted that Sarah Palin was rather late to global-warming skepticism. As it turns out, her move to the far right on this issue was considerably more dramatic than I had realized. Check out these quotes from September 2007, when she signed an order creating a panel to prepare for climate change. Said the then-Alaska governor:

Many scientists note that Alaska’s climate is changing. We are already seeing the effects. Coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice and record forest fires affect our communities and our infrastructure. Some scientists tell us to expect more changes in the future. We must begin to prepare for those changes now.

Of course, Palin in 2007 was not as interested in impressing the Republican right as she is today.

All posts in this series.

Photo (cc) by Robert Nunn and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Speaking of Sarah Palin (and who of us Sarah-obsessed liberals fails to do so at every juicy opportunity)did you read that she won the 2009 “Lie of the Year” award from for her “death panels” posting on FaceBook?

  2. Newshound

    We can’t blame the potential, and most likely future extinction of human life on Sarah Palin, Republicans or any of the rest of us as our whole civilization is to blame.

    The known scientific threats fail to make those who don’t believe correct, but this is a battle I think the human race will lose.

    If Sarah Palin were not even alive, and thus did not contribute to the debate or her share of the carbon footprint, the most likely extinction of human life will occur, possibly, but not likely, a few minutes deferred.

    I think there’s going to be some real unpleasant problems starting within 100 years, quite unpleasant within a couple of centuries and I suspect extinction maybe 700 to 1000 years from now. Of course, it is likely to be rather unpleasant those final years.

    Close to the end there probably won’t be any blogging, Internet or television.

    I don’t think we know scientifically, or politically, or socially how to save the future.

  3. charles pierce

    Dan —
    I don’t know if I posted this before but, back when I was in Shishmaref, the folks there were relatively big fans of Sarah, who’d been there a couple of times, listened carefully to their plight, and gave every indication that she would do what she could to arrange for help.
    FWIW, that was the original impression I had of her, albeit a second-hand one, and it was not unfavorable.

  4. Laurence Glavin

    Shortly after reading Charlie Pierce’s “Idiot America” (sorry Charlie, you didn’t make a dime from me…I read a library copy, but it’s in high demand so I was put on a waiting list before I got it if that’s any consolation), I then read “The Price of a Bargain” by Canadian writer Gordon Laird. He wrote that part of the reason we can buy “cheap stuff” at Wal-Mart, etc is the ready availablity of cheap energy, and that’s about to change. Right now, Canadians are extracting oil from tar sands up by the Arctic Circle, at enormous cost per barrel. Along the way, he mentioned how the ice is coming out earlier and earlier in Frobisher Bay, NWT. That’s so far north, it’s above my Rand McNally road map of La Canade, so I had to check my World Atlas to find it.

  5. Harrybosch

    In happier news, scientists announced just this past week the finding of a probable “water world” only 2.7 times the size of Earth and about 40 light-years from here. Cosmologically speaking . . . it’s in our backyard.

    Global warming or no, mankind is doomed to extinction on this planet of steadily dwindling resources. Seeding the universe with the virus that is mankind is our only hope.

  6. gallopingcamel

    Our ability to monitor sea ice accurately only goes back 30 years. The Arctic sea ice reached a (30 year) minimum in September 2007. Three weeks later Antarctic sea ice reached its 30 year MAXIMUM. This does not fit with the huge Antarctic warming described by Montaigne.

    I am a physicist rather than a climate “scientist” so some of you real experts may be able to explain this apparent discrepancy.

    If the Antarctic really is warming, why should that be alarming? For much of earth’s history there was no ice at either of the poles but life managed to adapt.

  7. Steve Stein

    Camel – cite?

    Are you measuring sea ice extent? Or total volume of sea ice?

    Climate conditions of the first 4 billion or so years on Earth are irrelevant, even though that compromises “much of Earth’s history”. What’s important now is the habitability of the Earth for the civilization we’ve developed.

  8. Newshound

    gallopingcamel – good point – life may be able to adapt.

    Perhaps not human life. Or, humans may change due to evolutionary requirements to adjust to the planet. And, then again, the change that threatens human life or any life on the planet may not occur or that life will change to adapt to the planet.

    All life on this planet it seems will eventually cease.

    Will it make any difference if there is human life on the planet in 500 or 1,000 years? Maybe not. Maybe it is okay for us to substantially just go about our daily lives with some thought and innovation towards the longevity of the planet, but not worry or deprive ourselves too much of it and its resources. Live it up for now.

    What difference does it make whether or not we have 20 generations of descendants, or 21?

    With all the extraordinary advances that have been made in the last 75 years with medical care, people are not living longer. Statistically, it has changed in the sense of fewer child birth deaths and other illnesses that take the lives of infants and children, but the overall life span is not increasing and may be shrinking.

    Some of this can be attributed to the environment – toxins in the atmosphere, work and family related stress, lifestyle stress, etc.

  9. Harrybosch

    “All life on this planet it seems will eventually cease.”

    Hate to break it to you, newshound, but the universe itself will eventually cease.

    For a tragicomic take on the subject, take a few minutes to read The Last Question by Isaac Asimov. It’s sure to cheer you up!

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