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.