Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fraser's Penguins - book

Fraser’s Penguins A Journey to the Future in Antarctica, Fen Montaigne (Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2010.

This fascinating book is partly about Bill Fraser who began studying penguins in the Antarctic in 1975, and, with various collaborators, has continued his research on them for thirty years, mostly from Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. It is also, and primarily, about the Adelie penguins he studied most intensively. As it is impossible to study one species without knowing their interactions with others, it is also about giant petrels, brown and South Polar skuas, seals and sea lions, whales, krill, silver fish, other species of penguins, and also about still other related species that are part of the complicated ecosystem of Antarctica. And, as it is also impossible to study creatures independent of their environment, it is also about the sea ice, glaciers, the wind and weather, and the particular geographic niche the Adelie inhabit. The author, who was one of Fraser’s collaborators for a time, has done quite a fine job of explaining how their research was conducted, the difficulties involved, the reasons for collecting things like feces, regurgitated food, pumping out penguin stomachs for information on diet, the condition of the sea ice, the force of the wind, conditions of the water, and so on. It is an exceedingly complicated procedure and over the years has provided a wealth of information about this previously unknown continent.

Montaigne also attempts to explain the strange fascination researchers develop for this extreme part of the earth and why so many wish to return over and over again. He attempts to paint a picture of the Antarctic in prose and does what I think is a very credible job. However, a serous reader soon is forced to conclude that words cannot truly do justice to this mysterious land and you suddenly realize it must be necessary to see it for yourself. As this is not possible for most of us we can only admire this admirable attempt to capture the scene for us. We also get a bit of a history lesson about earlier explorers and researches and some marvelous quotations from their works.

More importantly, this is a book about global warming and the future. Bear in mind that Fraser did not travel to Antarctica in 1975 to study global warming. Indeed, the concept of global warming was not commonly discussed as it has become lately. Global warming was not on Fraser’s mind when he began studying the penguins he became so involved with. He could not, over the years of his experience there, overlook what was obviously happening to his main research subjects. The Adelie penguins survival depends importantly on the presence of sea ice at certain periods of the year. As the sea ice, reliable for hundreds, even thousands of years, began to occur less frequently, the Adelies have began to disappear and the survivors have had to move further and further south where sea ice still remains. Thus the niche the Adelies inhabited has now been more and more taken over by Gentoo penguins that are not dependent upon sea ice and thrive on barren coastal regions. While this is one lesson to be learned from Fraser’s Penguins it is, of course a far more complicated situation, having to do with such things as the temperature of the ocean, increasing amounts of snow, the slowly disappearing plankton and krill, the relationship of the Adelie penguins to the Brown skuas who depend upon them as food, and who, once the Adelie populations begin to decline, can easily wipe out their colonies completely. It is clear that creatures less dependent upon cold environments are moving into areas that are warming and that the ecosystem is changing in ways that simply cannot be denied.

For reasons I could not possibly explain here the Antarctic is quite obviously warming faster than the rest of the globe. Thus it is, in Fraser’s words, like the “canary in the coal mine,” and it should serve as a warning about the massive changes that are taking place in our atmosphere and environments. No reasonable person, reading this detailed account of what is happening at the ends of our earth, could possibly deny that global warming is real, it is largely man-made, and it poses a threat so potentially serious that global warming deniers are putting the rest of us at risk. Their shameful gifts of silver will avail them little if serious action is not taken quickly.

No comments: