Lessons in a Land of Wind and Ice

While participating in a study of penguins in Antarctica, the author braved extreme weather, primitive living conditions and intense isolation

01-15-2010 // Noah K. Strycker

Adelie penguins at Cape Crozier

AS I LIE PRONE ON THE ICE EDGE at Cape Crozier, Antarctica, an Adélie penguin shoots out of 28 degree F seawater, arcs through the air and lands ungracefully on my back. I’m not sure which of us is more surprised. Loaded down with camera equipment, I’m unable to dodge the missile. The bedraggled penguin waddles away to preen itself dry, while I ease back on my feet to pack for the long trudge back to my tent.

In the midst of a three-month bivouac at Cape Crozier, I’m getting a real taste of Antarctica’s penguins by watching, photographing and generally hanging out with more than a quarter million Adélies and a small colony of emperor penguins as part of a long-term study of their life histories and behaviors. I’m working for a project called PenguinScience, a collaboration of researchers that has studied and tracked populations of Adélies here for more than a dozen consecutive breeding seasons. My duties are mostly field-oriented: observation, data collection and banding birds. While I battle subfreezing temperatures and isolation in one of the world’s coldest and most remote places, the penguins face predatory skuas, storms and competition among themselves, as they have for millenia. These days, though, they’re also confronting something much more insidious: Antarctica’s melting ice.

Despite their distant stomping grounds, Adélie penguins rank among the most-studied birds on Earth. Charisma, fearlessness, site loyalty and abundance place them among an elite few species with so-called star appeal that are relatively easy to observe. Along with emperors, Adélies represent the only truly Antarctic penguins, living entirely south of the Antarctic Circle; the world’s other 15 penguin species inhabit islands and continental fringes farther north where most ice is locked in mountain glaciers.

 Adelie penguins in a line

David Ainley, a senior scientist with the California-based ecological consulting group H.T. Harvey & Associates, heads PenguinScience, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Each summer for the past three decades, he has conducted field research of Adélies at Cape Crozier and other Ross Sea colonies. He is spending this season at the nearby Cape Royds colony.

Around the 1970s, wind patterns changed in the Ross Sea area,” says Ainley. “Because of warming in mid-latitude oceans and the ozone hole, winds have steadily increased velocity and duration over the past decades. Climate models project that they will just keep getting stronger.”

The increased wind at Cape Crozier, already one of the windiest places on Earth, is a local effect of global warming that has benefited penguins in the short term. By blowing ice away from shore, the wind keeps a polynya—an area of ice-free water—open more reliably, giving the birds closer access to food and migration routes. In the early part of the breeding season in November, the penguins walk from their nests to the edge of open water, sometimes many miles round-trip across the sea ice. The birds must nest on solid land, which in November is surrounded by frozen ocean; the sea ice thaws as summer progresses.

Adélie numbers at Cape Crozier have grown dramatically since the 1970s. Meanwhile, the species’ populations are declining in more northerly areas, perhaps because of the wind and ice effects. Other factors also may be at work, such as a recent population crash in certain southern groups of whales that compete for the same food as penguins. Scientists cannot say for sure what drives Adélie numbers in the Ross Sea area, but food access and availability are surely important.

Climate change is a double-edged sword. The polynya effect may have already plateaued, as access to unfrozen water, once opened, is not affected by further increases in wind patterns. Meanwhile, Antarctic snowstorms are becoming more frequent, accumulating snow in the few areas of bare rock where Adélies can nest. And warmer temperatures are chipping away at Antarctica’s ice, the very foundation of its continental systems; soon, the Ross Sea might be one of the last areas of the Southern Ocean with a significant amount of sea ice.

A helicopter dropped me and two other researchers at Cape Crozier with a three-month food supply in early November. Since then, it’s been just us and the birds. Our only real links to the outside world are satellite Internet, which can break down in a storm, and a VHF radio connection to McMurdo Station 45 miles away. It’s a good thing the three of us get along well and have stayed healthy. Any evacuation could be delayed for days by weather.

 Emperor and Adelie penguins; Noah K. Strycker

Besides the three-months-without-a-shower and it’s-so-cold-your-stomach-hurts aspects, living at the end of the Earth is truly a wild experience. I sleep in a tent with no frills whatsoever. Inside my sleeping bag, I usually wear three pairs of long underwear, three shirts, socks, gloves, hat and down jacket. Dozens of yards away, the kitchen and living areas are protected in a 12-by-20-foot wooden hut, where bunks provide more secure but cramped sleeping arrangements when winds exceed 50 miles per hour.

Each day, I awaken to a stark and endlessly fascinating scene dominated by ice, rock, sea and space. I wrestle on frozen boots and scurry from my tent to the hut with its propane heater. After breakfast, I suit up in extreme cold-weather clothing, strap crampons to my boots, slip on polar sunglasses and head out on the ice. My pack is stuffed with a field book, cameras, a GPS device, binoculars, ice axe, hot chocolate and, just in case, survival gear. The penguin city where I conduct my work sits at the base of a glacier about a 45-minute hike from camp in stiff winds.

Most of the fieldwork at the penguin colony centers on marking individual birds with metal flipper bands. The bands are placed on fledgings at the end of each breeding season and identify the birds when they return to nest a few years later. The bands can be read with binoculars from a distance to avoid bothering the birds.

In the glaring 24-hour sunshine, I spend as many as eight hours a day wandering among the penguins, recording in a field notebook the numbers of banded birds and what they are doing. Those observations become part of a large database that can be used to measure a variety of life-history characteristics, such as where the animals nest, who they mate with and how many offspring they produce. Flipper band data have shown that these penguins, which can live as long as 16 years, typically return to the same colony and usually the same subcolony where they were reared, but there are exceptions. Each year, a few dozen banded penguins are recorded at Crozier that originated from one of the other Ross Sea colonies, all between 40 and 50 miles away, showing that colonies are not isolated populations.

Walking in the penguin metropolis is a cosmic experience. The quarter-million Adélies that nest at Cape Crozier blacken the valley. They place their nests in meandering subcolonies that, from a distance, resemble ink blots spattered across the landscape. The smell, especially toward the end of the season when the ground thaws slightly, catches in my throat—a heady cocktail of fish, shrimp and excrement. If the wind is right, the clamor of the birds reaches my tent a mile away, roaring like a stadium full of sports fans.

Recently, we’ve introduced a new technology to track the penguins in our project. For their short feeding trips, we tape waterproof tags to the birds’ backs, which are then removed and reused. Each tag, resembling a candy bar with an antenna, constantly uploads the penguin’s position to satellites, which email the coordinates to us in real time. The tag also records temperature, pressure and light levels, which can be used to construct dive profiles: how deep, long and fast, and at what angle the penguins swim in pursuit of fish. Over the season, Adélies make longer and deeper trips, presumably as food sources near the colony are exhausted. The animals’ deepest dives can exceed 150 meters, though most are shallower. Availability of krill and fish is probably the primary limitation on colony size.

Among other things, our long-term study is revealing that weather and ice patterns are changing in Antarctica, and that the penguins are bellwethers of this climate change. “Adélie penguins are showing us that, when faced with conditions not conducive to their well-being, they move,” says Ainley, “even to the degree of being contrary to their usual philopatric behavior. With rising sea levels, the folks in Florida, Wall Street and other low-lying areas should heed this warning about moving to solid ground. When nothing is constant, it’s your ability to adapt that counts.”

As Wall Street executives well know, however, change can be difficult. Adélie penguins are able to move as long as they can find places with bare rocks for nesting, open water for fishing and ice to attract krill and fish. That’s why, for now, southern Antarctic penguin colonies are increasing and northern ones are decreasing. But no one knows how much farther south the birds can go before they run out of habitat.

 Adelie and emperor penguins

Just after Thanksgiving, I awake one morning to the walls of my Scott tent snapping in a screaming wind. Snow has drifted in the door and frozen on my sleeping bag and inside my boots. I crawl outside toward the more-solid hut. Suddenly, the full fury of the wind whips me in the face. I can barely stand up. Snow swirls off the ground, causing a total whiteout. I have to follow a rope tied between my tent and the hut 100 yards away. The anemometer records sustained 60-mile-per-hour winds, with frequent gusts over 100, for the next 36 hours.

Safe inside the hut, I watch out the window as my tent implodes: Inch-thick aluminum poles snap, ropes part and the fabric rips to pieces. Only a three-inch lake of solid ice on the tent floor, accumulated from my body heat melting snow while I sleep, saves the tent structure from blowing away. The wind sounds like a jet engine. To reach the outhouse around the corner, I crawl on all fours.

The Thanksgiving storm barely registers with the penguins, though. They sit on their eggs, point their beaks into the gale and ride it out. Through the short summer season, they stay focused on laying and tending eggs and raising their young, and then they head out to sea for the remainder of the year—about eight months.

The huge amount of information collected by PenguinScience researchers at Cape Crozier is an impressive example of what long-term monitoring studies can accomplish. The study has already answered many research questions about Adélies and emperors. But the greatest question remains unanswered: What will happen to the penguins if they run out of ice?

Photojournalist and researcher Noah K. Strycker is now an editor at Birding and a columnist for WildBird.


Emperor Penguins: A Species Facing an Uncertain Future
In addition to hosting Adélies, Cape Crozier is the breeding site for a colony of emperor penguins, the celebrated birds that starred in the movies March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. The emperors arrive in the area each year to raise their young on a patch of sea ice against the nearby Ross Ice Shelf. Nesting on the frozen sea surface, they may never touch land. As a result, emperors are particularly susceptible to melting ice throughout their entire Antarctic range.

In a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of international scientists expressed concern about the ability of the species to adjust to shrinking ice conditions. To avoid extinction, the scientists reported, emperor penguins will have to “adapt, migrate or change the timing of their growth stages.” Unfortunately, the researchers added, “evolution or migration seems unlikely for such long-lived species at the remote southern end of the Earth.” Given the effects of projected increases in global greenhouse gas emissions on Antarctic climate and habitat, the birds clearly face an uncertain future.


NWF Priority: Solutions to Global Warming
Finding solutions to the threats posed by climate change is a top priority of NWF, which is actively supporting federal legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, publishing reports on warming’s impact on wildlife, and collaborating with state affiliates and campus leaders all across the country on a variety of grassroots efforts. For more information, visit www.nwf.org/globalwarming.

 

Read more about Noah K. Strycker's experiences studying and photographing penguins at Cape Crozier.

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