PUKING PENGUINS AND GLOBAL WARMING MAY NOT, ON THEIR FACE, APPEAR TO HAVE MUCH IN COMMON. But as I discovered on the Antarctic Peninsula, a 700-mile long tail of ice and rocky islands jutting up towards Latin America, scientific evidence is often where you find it
Torgersen Island, Antarctica, with its thousands of squawking, flipper-flapping penguins, combines the pungent odor of a cow barn with the sound levels of a hip-hop concert. Plus most of the birds here, parents and chicks alike, have managed to stain themselves the color of red Georgia clay with their krill-rich guano. But down by the water's edge porpoising adelie penguins are jumping ashore clean, wet and plump from the icy Southern Ocean.
Approaching these full-bellied birds is Dr. Bill Fraser, a rangy scientist and 25-year ice-veteran from Montana State University. Working here on the highest, driest, coldest continent on Earth he has become one of the world's leading authorities on penguins. He's in his usual uniform of beater bill cap, blue fleece jacket and deeply stained boat pants and boots.
"Looks like the birds are having problems finding food this year," he tells me. "Normally it takes them six hours, but now we're finding they're spending as much as 16 hours a day foraging for krill.
Adelie penguins are having trouble finding food because of dramatic changes in water temperature
"How does he know the birds' diets and the availability of their prey? One method is a technique called diet sampling. Fraser snares one of the foot-and-a-half tall adelies in a long-handled net, reaches in and extracts it by a flipper-like wing. He walks over to where fellow researchers Matt Irinaga and Donna Patterson have set up their diet-sampling equipment.
Patterson kneels on a padded board and takes the bird between her knees. Fraser has a big insulated jug full of warm saline water around 100 degrees F (the same temperature as the bird's stomach). He dips the tip of an attached plastic tube into mineral oil so as not to hurt the bird's throat and slips it down its gullet. He then runs warm water through the tube with a hand pump until the bird starts to gurgle. At this point, they pull the tube and the bird starts upchucking krill. They hold it tail end up until it empties out into a bucket. After they right the bird, it shakes its head vigorously, getting regurgitated krill on everyone's boat pants and fleece jackets, before it belly-slides and paddle-walks away, looking somewhat indignant (as penguins often do).
Tiny shrimp - like krill is one of the ocean's crucial food sources, and its scarcity is increasing foraging times for penguins and whales alike.
Returning to the bucket, the trio uses kitchen strainers to drain and pack down the post-penguin krill. they slip it into ziplock baggies before we head back to Palmer Station in a fast black rubber Zodiac raft, the perfect vessel for maneuvering through Antarctica's choppy subfreezing waters and chunky brash ice.
"Some birds are eating Chysanoessa Macrura, a smaller species of krill, which means they might be having a hard time finding their regular prey," Fraser explains back at Palmer, the smallest of three U.S. Antarctic research bases run by the National Science Foundation. He is using tweezers to point into a tray full of partly digested krill on the lab table in front of him. Patterson and Irinaga are tweezering through similar trays. The group needs to analyze about 50 little pink shrimp-like krill to get a good representation of each bird's diet. Krill, the most abundant animals in the world in terms of their total biomass, form the base of the Antarctic food chain.
Rapid warming in the Antarctic Peninsula over the last 50 years, including an incredible 10-degree F rise during the Austral winter months, has led to a decline of winter sea ice, which the krill depend on for their productivity. The underside of the ice acts like an upside-down coral reef, providing young krill both food and shelter. But heavy winter sea ice that used to appear four out of five years declined in the 1990s to only one or two years out of five. If the krill population declines along with the sea ice, that could wipe out populations of penguins, seals and whales that depend on the krill for their survival (an average blue whale consumes four to six tons of krill per day).
Other dramatic signs of climate change include retreating glaciers, more snowfall (warming in Antarctica means more precipitation in the form of snow), and the displacement of ice-dependent species like adelie penguins, crabeater seals and leopard seals with more adaptable, northerly, open water species like chinstrap penguins, elephant seals and fur seals. Even Antarctica's only two species of flowering plants, hairgrass and pearlwort, have changed their positions of dominance: the moss-like pearlwort appears more adaptable to the warming.
On another day I hike with Fraser past dozens of burbling elephant seals and climb hundreds of feet up the granite and basalt boulders of Norsel Point, where we're dive-bombed by gull-like Skuas. We're now at a spectacular mossy overview above Loudwater Cove across an open channel from the blue ice of the Marr Glacier. There's the distant artillery rumble of calving ice. Fraser points to three rugged granite islands that have emerged from below the retreating glacier in recent years.
"When I was a graduate student we were told climate change occurs, but you'll never see the effects in your lifetime," Fraser says. "But in the last 20 years, I've seen tremendous changes. I've seen islands like these pop out from under glaciers, I've seen species changing places and landscape ecology altered." Several adelies are porpoising between the new islands and the ice.
Two weeks later there is a surprise awards ceremony at the regular Wednesday night science talk in Palmer Station's rec room the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, with a nudge from the National Science Foundation, has approved the naming of the largest of the three glacier-exposed islands, Fraser Island.
Fraser is amused and also--one suspects--quite moved as he's handled a framed illustrated certificate and digital photo of Fraser Island. "Now climate change will reverse and in 25 years it'll be covered up again," he jokes to appreciative laughter. But everyone in the room knows better. CONTACT: The Antarctica Project, (202) 234-2480, www.asoc.org;National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs, (703) 306-1033, www.nsf.gov/od/opp.