Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: End of the world at the end of the world..

Fen Montaigne: Fraser's penguins, a journey to the future in Antarctica. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2010. 255 pages, index, bibliography (extensive), maps, photographs.

"What we're looking at here is an entire ecosystem that is changing, and it's not changing in hundreds of years. It's changing in thirty to fifty years. To me this is foretelling the future across major parts of the planet. All those places we cherish are going to change." - Antarctic researcher Bill Fraser

          Fraser's penguins is a veritable cri du coeur, as the French say.

cri du coeur: a passionate outcry (as of appeal or protest), literally, "cry from the heart". 

          Montaigne wants to get a shout out to the world: clean up our environmental act or there will be hell to pay.

Abbreviations used in this article:

CC - climate change
F - degrees Fahrenheit
GW - global warming

                           Adélie penguins, Antarctica

           Fraser's Penguins is the story of human caused climate change (CC) and its impact on a particularly vulnerable ecosystem, that of the Adélie penguin colonies on the offshore islands of the Anvers Island archipelago, off the northwest coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Contrary to (recently debunked) global warming (GW) denier propaganda, the Antarctic is warming too. In 35 years, for example, the Marr Ice Piedmont, a large Anvers Island glacier, has retreated 1500 feet from the US operated Palmer Station. Mean winter temperatures have shot up 11 degrees Fahrenheit (F) and annual mean temps by 5 F.

                          Torgensen Island is one of the major adélie nesting sites

                  Montaigne, a journalist and author, picked the mind of ecological researcher Bill Fraser to write this book as well spending the spring and summer of 2005-6 at Palmer Station observing the changes in situ for himself.

               The psychology of Bill Fraser and others who fell in love with Antarctica is interesting. In it we may discern, perhaps, the reasons for our world's indifference towards its own fate and that of the other living creatures we share this globe with. These men - to date, by the vicissitudes of patriarchal culture, most of those who had intimate contact with the lost continent have been men - these men who love the antarctic are simply of a different breed (which of course does not auger well for our wild spaces nor our long-term geopolitical stability..)

 "The scene was eternal and untouched and I, like many people who have spent time in Antarctica, was overcome with an exhilarating feeling of insignificance."

"Observing this chinstrap (penguin) metropolis leads to an almost euphoric appreciation of the bounty of the wild world when left unmolested by man."

"Fraser reveled in carrying out groundbreaking work in a majestic setting. 'I absolutely fell in love with the landscape and the feeling of sheer wildness that existed here - just the overwhelming sense of being in a place what was utterly empty of human beings' he said. 'it hooked me badly'".

Lieutenant Kristian Prestrud, member of Amundsen's 1910-12 expedition: "One's dear self becomes so miserably small in these mighty surroundings." Freud's "oceanic sentiment"?

William S Bruce, Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, 1902-4: "Isolation among the fastnesses of nature does not bring loneliness: that can perhaps be only felt in its full extreme among the busy haunts of men."

"One evening, with the shadows lengthening, I stood on one of the highest points on Norsel and could see all the area's seabirds either nesting or in flight, from the tiny Wilson's storm petrel, to blue-eyed shags, to Antarctic terns, skuas, and, of course, penguins. Widely scattered clouds passed overhead, subtly transforming the panorama of mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and ocean. It was almost the New Year, I had been at Palmer Station for two months, and gradually I was coming to realize why this place, and this work, exerted such a pull on Bill Fraser. The magnificent landscape and seascape changed by the minute. You spent your days working with wild birds in terrain virtually untouched by man. No day in the field was ever the same, and each left you with a pleasant feeling of exhaustion. Where else, in the modern world, was such a life possible?" - nostalgia for our hunter-gatherer origins? 

Antarctic researcher Bill Fraser: "It always seemed intuitive to me that the only way to really understand something is to live in it. What became really apparent to me was that the system on the Antarctic Peninsula was so incredibly variable that the only way to get a handle on understanding how that ecosystem was operating was to spend a tremendous amount of time in the field, collecting the same data year after year. Some of the best ideas I've had in my career have come because I have spent so much time here. You develop a sense for what the rhythms should be, the  flow of things. And that's what has allowed me to pick up things that don't make sense, the anomalies. You've got normality and all of a sudden something happens that seems out of place, and those are where the windows suddenly open up. It's the anomalous years that really cue you in as to how this system is operating, and if you don't spend a lot of time there, then how would recognize the anomalous years?"  If that's not the traditional hunter-gatherer psychology, what is?? Ancient wo/man had to develop a "holistic" sense of the "flow of things" in order to recognize - and above all anticipate! - changes (positive or negative) upon which their survival depended. The degeneration of this holistic "sense of place" in modern industrial societies - with their fragmented, atomized consciousness - may account both for much of our modern psychopathology and for our inability to respond to the clear signals nature is giving us that our planet is in trouble. For researcher Bill Fraser the Adélie penguin colonies he studies are "canaries in the coal mine". Their recent rapid decline signals that something is rotten in the state of Antarctica.

And most tellingly of all, "(Fraser) relished living on the edge, and .. his work there was the defining aspect of his life: like many earlier explorers, he also seemed happiest in Antarctica and felt out of place in fast-paced civilization. I once asked Fraser if he could live in a city. He replied, 'No way. I would die there. It's like oil and water. When I have to spend four or five days at a conference in a big city, I wither away. I become lethargic and depressed. It drives me insane. I hate it when I can't see the horizon.'"

                     the peninsula is shown in the box. Anvers Island is near the NW tip

          During Bill Fraser's 40 years long career, he has watched the Adélie penguin colonies around Palmer station go into rapid, and apparently terminal, decline. Fraser attributes this to GW which if pushed to extremes could be lethal to our technical civilization. If ALL of Antarctica's ice were to melt, sea levels would return to historical high levels, more than 200 feet above contemporary levels! At least half the world's population would be displaced (and our world is already overpopulated and barely able to grow enough food..)

           For the poor Adélies around Palmer Station, though, their hour has already come. However, in the GW sweepstakes there are losers (the Palmer Station Adélies) and winners (local colonies of gentoo penguins in particular). As the Palmer Station microclimate warms, local conditions begin to favor gentoos over Adélies. (Adélies are more cold adapted.) Gentoos are pushing further south each year and their population around Palmer expands rapidly. Further south, where it's colder, Adélie colonies are actually beginning to flourish as warming conditions open regions that formerly were too cold even for Adélies.

            As Bill Fraser has grasped, the ecosystems around Palmer Station are in a critical zone: a little warmer and they tip over into one type of organization (gentoo dominated), a little cooler and they tip into a different mode, Adélie dominated. The reason for this local sensitivity lies in the fact that, at the Palmer Station latitude, the presence of sea ice is highly temperature dependent. The presence of ice allows algal blooms to occur under ice which, in turn, feed fish and other organisms Adélies feed on. Less ice means less food for Adélies and lowered breeding success. A decade of relatively low breeding success produce a downstep in Adélie population.

                 Predator / prey interactions tend to amplify the above fluctuations in Adélie population. The guy above is one of the Adélies' worst enemies, a brown skua (seagull evolved into a hawk-like predator. Note the pointy raptor beak). As Adélie nesting colonies decline in size a greater proportion of the nests will be located on the periphery, making them vulnerable to skua predation: teams of skua separate chicks from inexperienced parents. Thus as colonies decline they become more prone to skua predation, accelerating the decline (positive feedback). 

                All of these - and many other - feedbacks make the Palmer Station Adélies a particularly suitable "canary in the coal mine" for GW tracking.

                                leopard seal going after an Adélie

             Fraser's penguins is very well written, an engrossing read. Even with its message of urgency, the glory of untouched nature suffuses the entire text. And not just nature's glory, there is a lot of good interesting science for the nerd, too. This is a good book to give to a young person old enough to pose questions about the nature of the world they are living in and where it is headed. Give it a 9 on 10..

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