Former CEJ environmental journalism fellow Susan Moran reports from Palmer Station in Antarctica
Yesterday, Susan reported live from the station for KGNU radio’s “How on Earth” science show, which the two of us co-host along with a group of other volunteers. She interviewed one of the station scientists, who described how this area of the Antarctic Peninsula is warming up more rapidly than any other place on Earth. More about that — and the impact it is having on the marine ecosystem — in a minute. But first, here’s Susan’s description of what you’re looking at in the photo above, as well as the area where she’ll be spending the next two weeks — from her new blog:
The station is a nondescript (shall we say post-industrial construction site architecture?) cluster of functional buildings on a modest plot of rocky outcropping. But it boasts the most stunning backyard and frontyard views I’ve ever seen: icebergs and small rocky islands in the foreground, and the majestic Marr glacier towering behind the station. See the photo of Monday night’s psychedelic sunset glow on the glacier. I gazed at the glacier from the deck of the one bar here while getting to know some of the members of this Palmer “family.” At least it feels like they’re all relatives. Many return year after year for months at a time.
For How on Earth, Susan interviewed Christopher Neill, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and the head of the MBL program that brings journalists, artists and others down to Palmer every year. As Neill put it, Palmer Station is “in the banana belt of Antarctica,” by which he means it is quite balmy by Antarctic standards. (In fact, during the radio show yesterday, it was colder at the KGNU studios than it was at Palmer Station — at least in the morning.)
An “enormous mass of water [is] circulating from west to east around continent of Antarctica, which basically isolates the continent from the rest of the world’s weather systems and keeps Antactica in a deep freeze,” Neill said. For Palmer Station, however, the direct marine influence — with water just a bit below freezing — tends to keep conditions a bit more moderate.
Over the past few decades, the heat content of the water circulating around the continent has been increasing, thanks to climate change driven by increases in concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to Neill. The result?
We are right now in the place on earth that is warming faster than any other. And it’s warming very quickly, especially in winter. So winter temps here are actually 11 degrees Fah warmer now than they were in 1950. It’s the highest documented rate of warming anywhere on Earth.
As temperatures have warmed, the extent of sea ice has shrunk.
“Ice cover is down 40 percent since 1950,” Neill said. That has meant 80 additional days each year when the area near Palmer is free of sea ice. (The first graph to the right shows the decline in sea ice extent from 1979 to 2007, in square kilometers.)
“So the focus of the science here is really on the consequences of that disappearing ice.” And those consequences are becoming increasingly evident.
“The whole system — the plankton leading to krill leading to penguins and whales — is built around the presence of seasonal ice,” Neill explained. As that ice has shrunk in extent, one of the most obvious impacts has been on a colony of Adélie penguins across the bay from the station, which has been studied for more than 30 years.This colony is “one of the best studied bird populations on earth,” Neill said. And it is changing “quite dramatically,” with significant declines in population. (The next graph depicts counts at different locations near Palmer of adult Adelie penguins and chicks, from 1992 through August of 2010.)
As this has occurred, gentooand chinstrap penguins, which typically live a little farther north in milder conditions, have been moving in.
Susan wrote about this on her blog yesterday, based in part on a conversation she had at the station with field biologist and penguin expert Jennifer Blum. An excerpt:
Adélie colonies are doing fine on other parts of Antarctica. And the number of another local penguin species, the gentoo, are on the rise on the western peninsula, partly, scientists believe, because they aren’t as picky eaters as the Adélie. Over the next few days I hope to join Blum and her team as they count penguin eggs and breeding pairs, and tag (or un-tag) penguins with satellite telemeters and radio transmitters, which are used to track how and where they forage and what they’re eating. Blum said the penguins sometimes whack her with their wings when she tags them, but then they waddle off unfazed. I think I’ll stay close to her if I tag them; she looks svelte and no-nonsense.
Here’s a video of some of the Adélie penguins near Palmer Station, shot a number of years ago by Dan Grossman, the first of the CEJ’s environmental journalism fellows to make it to Palmer Station. (Susan is the second.)
Chris Neill’s conclusion about the changes being observed by him and his colleagues around Palmer:
It’s sort of ground zero for climate change on Earth, and you can see these changes, and they’ve taken place in a time scale that’s really within the research career of some of the scientists that are working here.