And to learn about the researchers who count penguins at the bottom of the world, check out The Penguin Counters, a documentary about these dedicated researchers and the species they study in Antarctica.
And, finally … stay tuned for My Last Continent, coming on June 21 from Scribner! In this novel, you’ll meet four species of penguins: three Antarctic species, and the Magellanic penguins of Patagonia. Check out the book club kit for a little more info, and join my mailing list for news and updates on the book.
January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day. Why celebrate a day of penguin awareness, you may be wondering — and how?
There are 17 species of penguins throughout the world, and penguin awareness is important because these incredible birds face increasing threats every day, worldwide, from pollution to overfishing to climate change. Click here to learn about the most pressing threats to penguins and how you can help.
Another way to help penguins is through citizen science — visit Penguin Watch, and you can take part in ongoing Antarctic penguin research. You can help researchers by annotating images, without ever leaving your desk (though these amazing photos will make you feel as though you’ve traveled around the world).
Check out the Penguin Sentinels organization, a collaboration between the University of Washington, Global Penguin Society, Province of Chubut, and the La Regina family of Punta Tombo, Argentina, and is dedicated to research, conservation, and education. In addition to working at the Punta Tombo colony for more than 30 years, this group also does great work in the Galápagos Islands.
Learn about another penguin program at The Penguin Counters, which follows researchers on their Antarctic penguin-counting journeys.
And, if you’re crazy about penguins, check out the book Penguins: Natural History and Conservation, which offers an in-depth look at all 17 species of penguins and the challenges they face…and help ensure they’re around for generations to come.
And, a million thanks to Scribner for this delightful image of an Adelie penguin with MY LAST CONTINENT (which is about two penguin researchers working in Antarctica).
A new study from University of Pennsylvania researchers has found that Antarctic lake deposits have remained frozen for at least the last 14 million years — which suggests that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet has also remained intact.
If the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, or EAIS, didn’t experience significant melting during the Pliocene (a period from 3 to 5 million years ago, when carbon dioxide concentrations were similar to what they are today), this offers new hope that perhaps the continent won’t melt away, as many fear it eventually could.
Current climate change projections indicate that the marine portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is “a goner,” [Jane] Willenbring said. Studies from the past few years suggest that sea level will likely rise a few meters as that ice melts. But the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is 20 times more massive. If it melted, the ensuing sea level rise would be even more catastrophic than the western peninsula’s dissolution.
However, while this study offers hope that a massive collapse of the ice sheet, and the subsequent sea level rise, may not be imminent, the differences between the Pliocene and the rapid warming of today’s climate are great enough that it’s impossible to draw any definitive conclusions. As Willenbring says,”we’ve probably never experienced such a fast transition to warm temperatures as we’re seeing right now.”
This video, with gorgeous images of Adélie penguins and their chicks on the Antarctic peninsula, is one of the best calls to action I’ve seen for a planet in peril due to climate change.
Excerpted from James McClintock’s Lost Antarctica and narrated by Harrison Ford (member of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation (EOWBF) Board of Advisors), this brief video shows how the amazing Adélie penguin is being threatened by real-time environmental changes.
Over the last six decades, scientists have observed an average increase of 2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade in the Antarctic peninsula. These warming temperatures lead to increasing humidity, which leads to unseasonable snow. This video shows Adélies trying to keep their eggs incubated despite being buried in snow.
What sort of a world will future generations of Antarctic scientists find when they come to this remarkable place? When they gaze over this landscape, will they be reminded how this place, this peninsula, these ecosystems, served as a wake-up call…?
Climate change isn’t an abstract, faraway notion. It’s happening before our eyes, chick by chick.
He’s a unique bird in so many ways, and beloved even by those who have never met him. He got his name the year he decided to nest under a Ford Turbo instead of in a burrow or under a bush like most of his species. And while most penguins will scurry away at the sight of humans, Turbo would walk right up to you, and he even liked being patted on the head (which made the neighbor cats a little jealous).
Each year, I eagerly await news from the penguin program about what’s new the colony, but especially for news of Turbo. There’s a lot going on with the Magellanic colony where he lives — the colony is in decline due to such factors as oil pollution, overfishing, and climate change — but hearing news of Turbo each season gives me hope that these magnificent birds will make it in the end.
Researchers believe that Turbo is now about 11 years old. This season, he found himself a wonderful nest in a big molle bush, and we’re all hoping this will help him find a mate. (Yes, he’s still single after all these years.)
When I visited Antarctica more than 10 years ago, I met researchers from Oceanites, a nonprofit foundation founded in 1987 whose main focus is its Antarctic Site Inventory, which has been collecting and compiling data on penguins and their habitat in the Antarctic peninsula for the past two decades. When I wrote the short story “The Ecstatic Cry” and later MY LAST CONTINENT, I had a similar fictional organization in mind for the researchers in these stories.
These penguin counters do amazing work; their data offers important insights into climate change, the state of the oceans, the effects of tourism, and how best to conserve one of the most important areas of the world. For example, this article, “What Are the Penguins Telling Us?” by Steve Forrest, outlines the affects of climate change on the penguins: “the ice-loving Adélies of Petermann [Island] now number fewer than 300 nesting pairs, while the gentoos have risen to 2,400.” This is happening, he writes, at hundreds of sites in the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where the average temperature has risen several degrees centigrade in the past two decades: “Adélies are disappearing from their rookeries while the open-water loving Gentoos prosper.”
This video shows how irresistible these birds are…
…and it goes without saying we need to protect their habitat by taking better care of our planet and the oceans that sustain them.
I just read this recent article by Amanda Biederman — a scientist stationed at the U.S.’s Palmer Station, located on the Antarctic peninsula — who writes about being at once removed from the media’s coverage of climate change, yet also being at ground zero at the same time.
Biederman writes about the scary news from NASA about the imminent disappearance of the Larsen B ice shelf, as well as the fact that on the other side of the continent, in East Antarctica, while there had been increases in ice shelf volume between 1994 and 2003, this part of the continent is also experiencing ice shelf loss at the rate of 56 cubic kilometers per year.
Climate changes threatens not only the wildlife in Antarctica, as well as the ability to continue research there — it will change entire map of the world as we know it. Biederman writes:
If the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted, global sea levels would rise by 60 meters. Much of the U.S. East Coast — including about one-third of Maryland and the entire state of Delaware — would be underwater. Denmark and the Netherlands would disappear. Large portions of other countries, including the U.K., China and Brazil, would be destroyed as well.
It’s so easy to think of Antarctica as a faraway place, where what happens there doesn’t affect the way we live. But it does…and it will even more over time.
“This is not an issue that will be resolved on its own,” Biederman concludes, “and the time for making the environmental protection a priority is long past due.”
I came across two very different glimpses of Antarctica recently — one terrifying, and the other gorgeous. Of course, they’re connected…the first (NASA images of a gigantic iceberg breaking off a glacier) is a strong warning that we need to do something about climate change before what we see in the second (stunning video captured by a drone) disappears altogether.
This graphic is amazing because NASA captured imagery of the iceberg splitting from the continent just before and just after. It may look small in this image, but remember, this was shot from space! The iceberg, which broke off of West Antarctica’s Getz ice shelf, is 17 miles long (larger than Manhattan) and only one of many that have been breaking off the continent’s glaciers and floating into the sea (which will cause the oceans to rise to catastrophic levels). Check out the article for more info and photos.
And this gorgeous film was made by a Swedish filmmaker visiting Antarctica during this last tourist season … it shows the continent it all its quiet beauty, and in a few of the images you can see just how tiny human life feels in this vast place. Below is one of the stills from Kalle Ljung’s film … definitely worth watching, especially if you need a few moments of peace — it’s very meditative.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is a voluntary membership organization founded in 1991 to help Antarctic tourism keep up the standards of the Antarctic Treaty, that is: to protect the environment and to keep developing guidelines to continue to preserve and protect the continent.
Recently, IAATO released its latest tourism numbers, and I always find it interesting to gauge the activity in this part of the world. The total numbers of visitors traveling to Antarctica (with IAATO members) was 36,702. This is 2 percent less than the previous season; the highest recorded number of tourists visiting the continent was 46,265 during the 2007-2008 season.
IAATO also estimated the numbers of visitors expected next season, 2015-2016, and this edges closer to that high number: 40,029. The organization expects this increase to be among those smaller cruise ships that do landings, which means safer travel yet more feet on the ground in Antarctica.
This past season, 73 percent of Antarctic visitors traveled on small ships carrying fewer than 500 passengers — yet it’s the 26 percent of visitors who cruise through on larger ships without making landings that can be even more dangerous. These ships often carry thousands of passengers, and when you get into trouble that far south, rescues are challenging.
In 2007, a Canadian ship struck underwater ice in the waters off the Antarctic peninsula and sank within 15 hours. Fortunately, the ship had only 91 passengers, all of whom got into lifeboats and received help from a Norwegian ship that was nearby. In addition, the weather was good, around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (fairly balmy for Antarctica) and calm. But what if there had been hundreds more passengers, or if the weather had turned, or if no other ships were close by?
Traveling to Antarctica comes with inherent risk — it is, by nature, a wild and unpredictable place — and IAATO continues to keep the safety and environmental standards as high as possible. By now, most ships that travel to Antarctica are IAATO members, which wasn’t always the case. But with tens of thousands of tourists visiting annually, and this number only increasing, the continent is bound to be affected. My hope is that visitors return with a new respect for the planet and for all that we need to do to keep it healthy, and to keep Antarctica icy.
Of course, many believe we shouldn’t visit at all … like John Oliver, who has created a hilarious (anti) travel campaign for the white continent.
This was in 2006, and back then it had been about 15 years since the previous census. A small group of volunteers, we counted all the penguins in 731 circles (in teams of two, we counted all the nests, birds, and eggs within five-meter circles spaced about twenty meters apart) and discovered that there were 155,000 nesting pairs at Punta Tombo.
This colony has been studied for about 30 years, and unfortunately, the number of active nests at Punta Tombo has decreased by about 1 percent each year. Reproduction was better than average this past season, but there were fewer active nests, which means fewer chicks fledged than in most years. The main cause of chick death was, as usual, starvation — due to overfishing, penguins have trouble finding food close to the colony, and when they have to go farther for food, it’s more likely they won’t make it back in time to feed their hungry chicks. Climate change has also affected the penguins — one rainstorm this season killed 3% of the chicks from a 100-nest area.
Like these two lovebirds nesting above, many penguins mate for life — and the research being done will help us figure out how best to help them survive on the long term.
When I was writing MY LAST CONTINENT, I did a lot of research on penguins and those who study them.
Then, a couple of months ago, I discovered Penguin Watch, which is a completely addictive website that uses citizen science to help study penguins. What this means is that we can all take part in the research and conservation of these amazing animals.
How does it all work? The short of it is that the Penguin Lifelines project at the University of Oxford has set up a camera-monitoring program of 50 cameras set up throughout the Southern Ocean and along the Antarctic Peninsula. These cameras snap images of the areas overlooking colonies of gentoo, chinstrap, Adélie, and king penguins year-round, and they need volunteers to help annotate the hundreds of thousands of images being produced. For more info, click here — and sign up!
Penguin colonies are difficult to access during breeding season, but thanks to time-lapse cameras and online volunteers, the Penguin Watch program hopes to make big strides in conservation and protection.
Visit Penguin Watch and become a citizen scientist. It’s tons of fun, but be warned — you’ll lose hours to penguin counting! But at least you can say you’re doing it for science.