A Visit To Antarctica

In his new book Fraser's Penguins, writer Fen Montaigne describes the effect climate change is having on Antarctica's penguins. Montaigne, ecologist Bill Fraser and Science Friday blogger Kayla Iacovino (currently in Antarctica) recount their experiences on the continent.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, ending the year at the end of the Earth, or the bottom, if you prefer. Live on the line with us is a scientist who is atop one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Mount Erebus, located in Antarctica, right near the main American research station, McMurdo.

Kayla Iacovino is a Ph.D student at Cambridge. She's studying vulcanology and petrology, and she's been sharing her experiences at Mount Erebus on her blog, right there at sciencefriday.com. If you want to see some fantastic panoramic pictures she's been sending, please surf over to our website at sciencefriday.com.

Happy New Year to you, Kayla.

Ms. KAYLA IACOVINO (Student, University of Cambridge): Happy New Year to you.

FLATOW: It's already New Year's there, isn't it?

Ms. IACOVINO: It is, yes. I'm talking to you from the future.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Tell us what you're - you're up at Mount Erebus, and you can look down into the volcano.

Ms. IACOVINO: That's right, yeah. It's just a short Skidoo trip up to the side of the crater and then just a short walk up to the crater rim. And what's great about Mount Erebus, it's one of the only three volcanoes in the world with an active lava lake.

So it means that we can literally stand on the crater rim and see right into the top of the magma conduit, which means we can take some direct measurements that you can't do at most other volcanoes.

FLATOW: And I remember from being in Antarctica, down there in 1979, many years ago, every day you would see a puff of steam or smoke coming out of that volcano. It's really very active, as you say.

Ms. IACOVINO: Yeah, that's right. And one of the things that makes it so appealing to researchers is that it is active. But it's diffusive, and so it's letting off these puffs of steam that you see all the time, which makes it less dangerous, relatively, as far as volcanoes.

FLATOW: It's letting off steam, so to speak.

Ms. IACOVINO: Yeah, exactly. So it's not building up this pressure that can cause huge explosions.

FLATOW: And what do you expect to learn from your studies at the volcano?

Ms. IACOVINO: Well, there's a whole group of us studying all different kinds of aspects of the volcano. Many of us are taking, like I said, direct measurements (technical difficulties) gas emissions, the heat flux in the volcano.

But what I'm studying is the stuff that you actually can't see, which is the stuff, the magma that's several kilometers below the surface. So what I hope to learn is how things like CO2 and H2O and sulfur interact with these magmas very deep in the earth and what happens between there and the surface.

So - and I can do experiments in the lab at home. I can create a model for how these things will also interact with the magma, and then we can learn about how volcanoes (unintelligible) gases such as CO2. And also how they will explode, whether they'll be very violent eruptions or effusive eruptions.

FLATOW: Kayla, if there was a danger of that exploding, could you get out of the way in time?

Ms. LACOVINO: Well, it does do something called - there were volcanic bombs sometimes, which are basically giant slugs of magma. It's been somewhat inactive this year, but it has had a couple of bomb-throwing eruptions. And what you do when that happens is literally - if you hear a boom, you literally stop, look up, and you know, make sure you're aware. And in case any of the bombs do make it out of the crater, then you can step out of the way. But that's about as dangerous as it gets, and it has happened. But no one has been hurt here so far.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how long will you stay up there in - you're living in sort of a tent situation?

Ms. LACOVINO: Yeah. We have a camp with tents, but we also have a permanent structure called the Lower Erebus Hut. So we have, you know, a stove, and it's heated, and we also have Internet in there as well. So we're pretty well-connected in the hut.

FLATOW: And you'll be...

Ms. LACOVINO: I'm here...

FLATOW: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Ms. LACOVINO: I'll be here for, you know, just a few more days, actually. We're coming up to the end of the season here in Erebus.

FLATOW: And I'll bet it's a lifetime experience.

Ms. LACOVINO: Well, it's been absolute (technical difficulty)...

FLATOW: I think we lost her. Did we lose you, Kayla? I think we - well, we had a connection longer than I had hoped for. I mean, we were talking to Kayla Lacovino at Mount Erebus, which is this giant volcano. It's like 12,000, 14,000 feet up in Antarctica, and a satellite phones. So it was longer than I had hoped that we'd have a connection, so I want to thank Kayla.

She has - she's a PhD student at Cambridge University, and she sent back some incredible photos of her work at SCIENCE FRIDAY's blog at sciencefriday.com, panoramic views of looking down into the lava. You can see the red lava and all kinds of stuff. So if you want a treat in seeing what she's been sending back to us, surf over to our website. It's sciencefriday.com.

We're going to move across the large continent, and it is a very big Antarctica, from Mount Erebus to the Palmer Research Station for a look at the life among the penguins.

Fen Montaigne is the author of a new book called "Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica." He's a senior editor at Yale Environment 360. He joins us here in our New York Studio. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. FEN MONTAIGNE (Senior Editor, Yale Environment 360): Thank you, Ira. It's good to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

The Fraser of "Fraser's Penguins" is also with us. Bill Fraser is a seabird ecologist. He's been studying the birds around the Palmer Research Station since the 1970s, more than three decades. He's also the president of the Polar Oceans Research Group, a small nonprofit based in Sheridan Montana, and he joins us from there. Thank you for talking with us today.

Mr. WILLIAM FRASER (President, Polar Oceans Research Group): Thank you for having me, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. You've been, as I said, been going to Antarctica since the 1970s. Tells us what reason. You're studying one colony of penguins or a bunch of penguins?

Mr. FRASER: Yeah. Actually, it's - well, the whole concept of what a colony is is a bit confusing. But it's probably more accurate to say that we've been studying a local population of penguin and that being the population around Palmer Station, which is a U.S. base on Anvers Island, about 1,000 kilometers south of the tip of South America.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Bill, one of the starkest photographs in your book and on your website is the scene of a solitary penguin - Fen - the last one that survived the colony, and it's just sort of sitting there and they're all gone. And Fen - where do they go? I mean, this is one penguin sitting there and it's, you know - but right next to it there are a lot of other penguins that refuses to, like, join the colony - the other colony?

Mr. MONTAIGNE: Well, basically, what Bill has done over the course of 35 years is document how very rapid climate change warming has adversely impacted Adelie penguins, who - which are an ice-dependent species.

Just like polar bears in the Arctic, which use sea ice as a feeding platform, Adelie penguins in the Antarctic use sea ice as a feeding platform. And the sea ice is quickly disappearing in this part of Antarctica, and Adelie populations have declined by about 85 percent.

And as a writer, I was really interested in this story because Bill, in his professional lifetime of 35, 36 years, has witnessed these very dramatic changes firsthand. And that picture in the book is actually of the last penguin chick on an island called Litchfield Island, where Bill has been working since 1974. And there are no longer any Adelie chicks there. They have...

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. MONTAIGNE: The Adelies are simply, according to Bill's research, basically dying out in place because they can no longer survive in this warming environment.

FLATOW: And Bill, as you say, this is evidence of climate change?

Mr. FRASER: Yeah. I think it's actually unequivocal evidence. As Fen mentioned - just in the roughly 35 years that I've worked there, we've witnessed glacial retreat. We've seen new islands emerge from underneath these glaciers.

The most convincing evidence, though, is that virtually all species in our region that are dependent on sea ice are experiencing just a tremendous population decline. And we're - in fact, we're predicting that Adelie penguins will be regionally extinct, probably within five or seven years.

FLATOW: They will be extinct. In all of Antarctic or just in that area?

Mr. FRASER: No. It's just in that area.

FLATOW: MM-hmm.

Mr. FRASER: That's what I mean. It's going to be a regional extinction event, so the populations will disappear in that region.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We keep hearing stories from climate change deniers that the -actually, Antarctica is getting more snow and more ice, Fen, than it's not.

Mr. MONTAIGNE: Well, in fact, the - on the western Antarctic Peninsula, which is about a thousand miles long, where Bill and a whole team of U.S. scientists funded by the National Science Foundation work, there are now 90 or 86 fewer days a year of sea ice than there used to be. In some other parts of Antarctica, sea ice is actually lasting a little bit longer. But overall in Antarctica, there's not a dramatic change...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MONTAIGNE: ...up or down in sea ice. However - and there's still plenty of Adelie penguins, probably 2.5 million breeding pairs. But I think the importance of the story for your listeners is that I think most of your listeners who follow this realize that the Arctic is melting very, very rapidly, very rapidly. I mean, the sea ice there is on the way to disappearing completely in the summer within the next couple of decades.

What is happening on the Antarctic Peninsula is the first breech in this enormous citadel of ice that is Antarctica - up to three miles deep, a country - a continent the size of one and a half times the U.S., including Alaska. So this is really the first break in that great continent of ice.

FLATOW: All right. We'll talk more about it. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Bill Fraser and with - talking about Fen Montaigne and his book. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break. Don't go away.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking with Fen Montaigne, author of the new book called "Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica." He is the senior editor at Yale Environment 360. Also with us is Bill Fraser, subject of the book. He's a seabird ecologist. He's been studying the birds around Palmer Research Station since the 1970s. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

And I'm sorry I had to interrupt, Fen. You were trying to explain the difference between what people perceive of possibly - the naysayers about global warming and actually what's happening to the ice in Antarctica.

Mr. MONTAIGNE: Well, I think it's important to point out that Antarctica, as I said, is at points three miles deep in ice. It is the greatest citadel of ice on Earth. It holds 90 percent of the Earth's ice. It's going to be a long time before the great Polar Plateau begins to melt in earnest. But what is happening, because of changing atmospheric and ocean patterns related to global warming, because of an influx now of warmer ocean water, particular in West Antarctica, you are now starting to see Antarctica begin to melt. And that is really the crux of Bill's research, and what he has witnessed with his own eyes in one very brief professional lifetime.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Bill, tell us about the life of these Adelie penguins. And have you - you've been studying them for over 30 years, the trend that you've seen in their population.

Mr. FRASER: Yeah. (Unintelligible) to make a long story short, Adelie penguins are one of a few species in Antarctica that are ice-dependent. And I think Fen already presented that kind of nicely. They basically depend on sea ice as a feeding platform during the wintertime. That ice is disappearing. And in effect the Adelies are losing their ability to forge efficiently during the wintertime.

We have documented the decrease in ice. And we've documented a coincident decrease in the number of Adelie penguin breeding pairs at Palmer Station. And from a life history perspective, Adelies are - like many seabirds, breed on land but depend on the ocean for their feeding. And so one of the big causal elements basically driving these populations is the loss of feeding habitat.

FLATOW: And you've been able to personally see this change over the 30-plus years you've been going there, dramatic change.

Mr. FRASER: Yes, absolutely. I - we began documenting these changes in the mid-1970s. And they were relatively, you know - there were minor changes that occurred through about 1990. And then following 1990, the changes have been catastrophic, and there is no recovery in sight.

FLATOW: Hmm. And if you try to move the penguins from where they're not anymore - move some of them that have larger populations to where they might reconstitute themselves, do they do that? Will they agree to that?

Mr. FRASER: No. Unfortunately, penguins - Adelie penguins, at least, are so beautifully adapted to their former polar environment that they are they're hardwired to return to the same breeding sites every year. And we've documented that as well. So they, basically, are dying in place. In effect, they're not surviving winter. And as a result, their populations are in decline in that region.

FLATOW: So, as you say, you think in that region they'll be extinct just in a matter of years - a few years.

Mr. FRASER: Yes. I'm guessing five to seven years. And I'm probably gonna be wrong. I'm guessing it may be a - it could be three to four years.

FLATOW: Fen, is that why the subtitle of your book is "A Journey to the Future in Antarctica"?

Mr. MONTAIGNE: Yes.

FLATOW: You see that as the future too?

Mr. MONTAIGNE: Well, I think - what I meant by "A Journey to the Future" is that scientists like Bill Fraser, who work at the Poles - both Poles, which are now starting to melt - and scientists who work in the world's cryosphere or ice zones, in glazers, et cetera, they are seeing the first really dramatic signs of what global warming can do to an ecosystem.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. MONTAIGNE: And Bill and his colleagues have done a really, really good job of documenting this cascading series of changes that has swept down the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

And I think it's very frustrating for writers like me or people like Bill and his colleagues to see these very, very pronounced changes, to know that the world is warming very rapidly now because of all the CO2.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. MONTAIGNE: And it's - the rest of the U.S. and much of the world is walking around like the three - you know, the see no evil, hear no evil, really, many people oblivious or just not interested in the subject. But it's going to start getting really important to us and hit close to home in the coming decades.

FLATOW: Well, you know, in the North Pole or the polar regions, they have the, you know, the polar bear symbols, right?

Mr. MONTAIGNE: Yeah.

FLATOW: So the - this - I guess the Adelies could serve as their birds, the canaries and the mine canary in the Antarctica.

Mr. MONTAIGNE: Well, Bill - I think Bill - he can speak to this better himself. But Bill has described, and I quote him in the book, as what's happening is that the long arm of industrial civilization has reached down to this part of Antarctica and is already having a very deleterious impact on the Adelies and other ice-dependent creatures.

FLATOW: Bill, as someone who's going there and looking at these birds for three decades, I imagine you must think of them as your family by now and must be hard for you to watch this.

Mr. FRASER: Yeah, Ira, I've actually been asked that question quite often, you know, in terms of what I perceive from an emotional perspective. And, yeah, you're absolutely right. I mean, it's - you know, you have the science going on, and that's kind of exciting. But it's - when you've been there as long as I have - and I should say these Adelie penguins are quite long-lived. They live for 15 to 20 years. And there are birds there that I recognize as individuals, that I've known for, you know, 15 years, 18 years. And to slowly see these disappear one by one is - it's an emotion. It's - emotionally, it's challenging. I mean, it sort of hurts.

Mr. MONTAIGNE: Ira, if I can say something? There was a scene in the book that was a sensitive scene to write about. And Bill - I showed Bill the scene, and he said, well, that's what happened, you print it. It shows, I think, the care that he and his colleagues take.

They were diet sampling some Adelie penguins, to see what they're eating and what's in their diet, which is very important to do from a scientific point of view, and lavaging or pumping out their stomachs. And very occasionally, that can result in the death of a penguin.

And when I was there, they did a lot of diet samples. Everything was fine. But one Adelie died as a result of the diet sample, which, of course, in the scheme of things, with thousands of penguins around there, is not scientifically an important thing. But to see that, literally, the grief and Bill and his colleagues as this penguin died, and Bill had to put it out of its misery by knocking it in the head with a rock, it was really - I think Bill feels that the populations have gotten so low there, he doesn't even want to do anything to take out one more penguin.

FLATOW: Would that be right, Bill?

Mr. FRASER: Yeah. That's absolutely correct. In fact, beginning next year, there are some protocols that we will no longer institute in that region, because we just don't want to take the chance that our own activities might be influencing the populations.

FLATOW: And the penguins are getting older, right?

Mr. FRASER: Yes, absolutely. In fact, that is - that's exactly what's happening. We have an aging population that is slowly dying, dying off. And there are very few - you know, there may even be no young breeders coming into the population anymore.

Mr. MONTAIGNE: One interesting aspect of the story from a scientific point of view and a journalistic point of view was how Bill and his colleagues pieced together the evidence of why these populations of Adelies in this region were declining. And Bill, I don't know if you could briefly describe another piece of that detective puzzle, which is increasing snowfall.

FLATOW: Well, we're going to have to leave it at that, because we have to take a break and say goodbye. And it is a fascinating book. If you want to read about Bill's work and Fen Montaigne's account of it, it's called "Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica." Thank you for taking time to be with us. And, Bill Fraser, seabird ecologist, president of the Polar Oceans Research Group. Thank you and good luck to you and the penguins down there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRASER: Thank you very much, Ira. A pleasure to being on board here.

FLATOW: Happy New Year to you.

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