The Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster than any other spot on Earth. So it’s an ideal place for Palmer Station, a government research center, where scientists study how a shift in degrees can affect the survival of marine life.
I recently called Palmer Station and talked to Marine Biology Laboratory Ecosystems Center scientist Christopher Neill and Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences postdoctoral associate Alex Kahl.
Why don’t you start by setting the scene at Palmer Station.
CN: This is a small research station on an island right off the Antarctic Peninsula. It houses at its peak 45 people—half researchers, half support staff. It's one of one of NSF’s long-term ecological projects that are designed to take the pulse of ecosystems over many years. They’re intended to go on long enough to detect ecological trends. There’s a glacier right outside our window. It used to loom over the station and there wasn’t much room before, but now it’s more than 1,500 feet away. That’s a lot of bare ground that’s been exposed [from melting ice] over the last 30 years.
AK: A lot of islands have emerged as the ice has recedes. The ice melts, and you find out it’s an island, so they’re scrambling for names.
CN: We’re in summer now, and it’s about two degrees Celsius. The wind is blowing 40 knots, and its drizzling. The temperature doesn’t vary that much between summer and winter because it’s coastal, and the ocean buffers the climate.
Why is this exact location the best place for your research?
CN: This place is warming faster than any other place that’s been measured on Earth, and that’s bringing a lot of changes from the bottom of the chain to seabirds--penguins especially. One of the things that’s happened here is that ice has declined quite consistently. Not only have the number of days of ice cover declined, but the ice is thinner, so it melts more quickly. Ice is a keystone piece of the food chain--the plankton, the penguins are all tied into ice.
I read that winter temperatures have gone up 11 degrees there since 1950, about five times the global average.
CN: That’s right. Ice is light in color, so it reflects sunlight. As the ice disappears, the ocean becomes darker in color and warms up. And it re-radiates the heat into the fall and winter. It’s called polar amplification—positive feedback between the ice disappearing and the dark water being exposed and absorbing heat. That’s the change of events that is very concerning to climate scientists at both poles.
AK: The warming is coming from the ocean. You can’t think of it as coming from the air or from North America. It’s a persistent increase in the temperature of the ocean that is making all the difference. The ocean temperature doesn’t vary a lot—it’s always right about freezing, plus or minus a few degrees. So when you see it go up from freezing just a few degrees, it has catastrophic results.
So how is this warming affecting the marine life?
CN: The adelie penguins only nest here, and they depend on the presence of ice. They need to be near feeding grounds rich in their food source—krill and fish--and need to rest on ice at night after their feeding. They’re having a hard time getting enough food (there’s less krill because they live in cracks in the ice, so as you lose seasonal ice cover, you lose krill) and a hard time getting their young strong enough to survive. The penguins are doing this juggling act—they need to be far enough north to have enough daylight to find food, but the climate pushes them south, because they need to be near food. There were more than 30,000 pair of adelies in 1975, and today there are less than 3,000. They’re predicted to disappear completely in about a decade. We’re watching the demise of the penguin colony.
AK: But as the adelies are disappearing, now that we’re becoming part of this sub-Antarctic climate, the gentoo penguins are coming in and colonizing. They are less dependent on ice. The adelies hang out on ice, and the gentoos hang out on land.
So what does this warming mean, in the big picture?
CN: This change is happening faster than what’s predicted. That’s something people need to pay attention to. If climate changes faster than predicted, we have less time to adapt. The warning signs of these changes are coming from these projects at the ends of the earth. They can lead to very dramatic changes that could happen relatively quickly, in our lifetimes.