What Antarctica’s penguins tell us about the planet’s future
Steve Forrest is trying to count penguins but progress is slow. Snow is falling in thick, sticky flakes and his target colony is disappearing. Cold waves splash across our boat as the wind picks up, driving white caps across the Gerlache Strait, at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The chinstrap penguin colony is perched on top of a cliff, and our dinghy, containing several graduate students and two large drones, has no place to land on the rocky shore. One of the students holds up an anemometer to measure the wind speed. The other has the stony face of someone who is about to be sick.
“This is emblematic of what chinstraps do, they are very extreme,” says Forrest, a conservation biologist and 25-year veteran of the Antarctic. We watch as they leap out of the ocean, grip the rock with their claws and trudge up a steep snowbank to get home. “Not a lot is known about chinstraps, compared with some other penguin species — partly because they live in these godforsaken places.”
What seems like bad weather for the penguin-counting team is just a mild day on the coldest, windiest, highest continent on the planet. Antarctica contains 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water, and 90 per cent of its ice. If the whole continent melted completely, global sea level would rise by 60m. A glance at its ice-encrusted shores makes it obvious why this is the only continent that has never had an indigenous human population.
On remote islands around the peninsula, Forrest and his team from New York’s Stony Brook University are surveying chinstrap penguin colonies, some of which have not been counted in three decades. They’ve found population declines in several locations: one large colony has shrunk by more than half.
“This is part of a much larger regional decline that we are concerned about,” says Heather Lynch, associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook. “The alarming part for me is not just that they are declining but that we don’t understand what is going on — and who knows what else is going on, what else is declining, under our noses, that we are unaware of.”
Climate change is the most likely factor behind the declines. The Antarctic Peninsula, where we are, is the fastest-warming part of the continent. It has heated up by about 3C since 1950, and, in February, a record high of 18.3C was recorded at Esperanza Base. The pace of change on the peninsula — which is warming more than three times faster than the rest of the planet — means the animal populations there are in the middle of a rapid transformation. Some species are thriving, while others are at risk of extinction.
“The chinstraps are the canary in the coal mine for a whole host of changes that are happening on the Antarctic Peninsula,” Lynch says, speaking by phone after the expedition. “Time might be running out to figure this out, before these changes are irreversible.”
Although Antarctica can appear to be a barren wasteland, the oceans around it are teeming with life. The giant glaciers and the annual sea-ice formation drive an overturning in the ocean waters, pouring oxygen and nutrients into the sea. Each winter, the continent’s surface area doubles as the ocean freezes around it.
The sea ice nourishes krill, the most abundant species on the planet and the foundation of the ocean food chain. Flocks of birds such as the black-browed albatross and the southern giant petrel, with wingspans of up to 2m, follow our boat wherever we go.
Studying Antarctica is notoriously difficult but, in many ways, it holds the keys for understanding the future of our planet. The rate at which its ice melts will determine whether we see 50cm or 100cm of sea level rise by the end of the century — the difference between whether or not low-lying cities such as Miami and Bangkok survive in their current form.
Clues to the history of the world, and what the earth’s atmosphere looked like millions of years ago, are also buried deep in the Antarctic ice cap. At a time when humans are trying, and so far failing, to curb emissions, Antarctica reminds us what is at stake.
As our dinghy motors through the floating ice in the Errera Channel, Kirsten Thompson spots a string of red dots floating in the water. They are connected by a gelatinous substance, a ribbon linking the red spheres. These are salps, a species that is thriving amid global warming — and she is not happy to see them.
“There is a really delicate balance between the salps and the krill,” explains Thompson, a lecturer in ecology at the University of Exeter, and one of the scientists on board the Arctic Sunrise, the 50m Greenpeace icebreaker that I’ve joined for a few days. The rise of the salps potentially means less food for the whales and other animals that eat krill.
“You see the ecosystem out of balance,” she says. “The Southern Ocean is really critical for the ocean everywhere else. Not only do you find the ocean current circulation here, it is also part of the picture with the upwelling [of the deep water] providing nutrients, which feed the plankton and the krill.”
Even though Antarctica appears to be at the end of the earth on traditional maps, it is at the centre of the world’s oceans. The strongest current in the world, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, runs clockwise around the continent. It drives the global “conveyor belt” that circulates water through the oceans, a beating heart that pumps life through the seas.
“The Southern Ocean is the core of the whole global circulation,” explains Rob Larter, a marine geophysicist at the British Antarctic Survey. This conveyor belt — known as the global thermohaline circulation — governs the oceans. But global warming is shifting its behaviour. “It absolutely is changing,” says Larter. “There is long-term warming and freshening of the deep waters of Antarctica.”
One of the clearest changes is in “Antarctic Bottom Water” — the coldest, densest water that fills the deepest basins of the planet and is formed by the freezing of the ocean in winter. Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, believes Antarctica may be producing less bottom water than before.
In a recent survey, “one of the patterns that really leapt out was the coldest, densest waters around Antarctica were substantially warmer than they had been,” he explains over the phone from Seattle. “About 10 per cent of the global warming of the climate system is happening in the deep ocean . . . Much of that is the Antarctic Bottom Water.”
The ocean circulation means that Antarctica is far more linked to the rest of the world than it first appears. “There is this old and wrong idea of Antarctica as an island continent. It is not so isolated; it is really connected,” says Marcelo Leppe, the director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute.
Not only does Antarctica have great influence over the planet, it is also deeply affected by pollution elsewhere. “The microplastics that are starting to be very frequent during the 20th century, they also have their records in the ice in Antarctica — and in the eggs of the penguins, and the feathers of the skuas and everywhere,” says Leppe. “All the problems that we have around the world, we have it in Antarctica too.”
I speak with Leppe in Punta Arenas, a city at Chile’s southern tip and the centre of the country’s Antarctic programme. The city is also home to the Research Centre for Dynamics of High Latitude Marine Ecosystems, which tracks how marine species in Antarctica are responding to climate change.
One of the centre’s marine biologists, Luis Vargas-Chacoff, opens the door of a walk-in refrigerated lab, and shows me another species that is a potential climate-change loser. The short, fat fish, about as long as a thumb, camouflages against rocks — and blends in so well that I have to look twice to see them inside their plastic tanks. These are the Antarctic spiny plunderfish, Harpagifer antarcticus. Vargas-Chacoff is testing how they respond to water in different temperatures — one tank is set at 8C, one at 5C and one at -2C.
He has just returned from Antarctica, where he says the weather was unusually warm. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects temperature increases of 4C to 6C on the Antarctic Peninsula. We have an idea that species will move as that warming happens, because they are site-specific,” he explains. The spiny plunderfish has a sister species in the warmer waters of Chile, which seems poised to make the move to Antarctica any day.
Monitoring and counting the animals of the Antarctic doesn’t just matter for Antarctica but for the entire world. “Our ability to see what happens to ecosystems when they are perturbed, and see how they might change in the future, that is really important for the next 100 years,” explains Phil Trathan, senior ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey.
However, the business of counting penguins, I learn, is less pleasant than it sounds. The day after our first snowy outing with Forrest’s team, the weather improves, and we manage to visit several chinstrap colonies. As we approach, the stench of guano wafts out to greet the boat. Once we are on land, slippery rivulets of the stuff cover nearly every surface, making walking a challenge.
One example of global warming is already clear as we trudge through the guano. There’s a sprinkling of rain, and the penguin chicks are looking wet and miserable. Their downy coats are highly adapted to snow but less effective in rain. “That is definitely a worry of climate change, because temperatures are increasing . . . you get more rain during the summer,” says Noah Strycker, one of the Stony Brook graduate students.
The chinstrap is a barometer for broader shifts in the ecosystem. One of the smaller penguin species, it is named for the black band across its chin. The survey I’ve joined is run by Stony Brook and Northeastern Universities, supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust. Greenpeace, which has sent two of its campaign ships to take researchers to the sites they need to visit, is providing logistical support.
Why is it worth coming so far, just to know whether there are 300 or 800 creatures on this poop-covered island? “It seems really basic — counting penguins,” Strycker admits. “The bigger issue is that penguins can teach us about their environment. If you can quantify how many penguins there are, then that helps you quantify how much krill there is . . . You can call penguins a ‘bioindicator’ of the Southern Ocean ecosystem.”
As difficult as it is to count them, it is much harder to count other animals in these parts, particularly krill. These tiny shrimp-like creatures are an essential food source for whales, penguins, fish, birds and seals. Each individual krill is no bigger than a human fingernail, but they live in giant swarms.
“Because penguins return to the same location each year, they are easy to count relative to other things. They provide a lot of information suggesting that the functioning of the Southern Ocean has changed over the past several decades,” says Lynch.
Each of the five species of penguin in Antarctica faces a different destiny as the continent warms. One of them is actually thriving — the hardy gentoo, a versatile penguin marked by a red beak and white headband. They can eat anything, shift their breeding schedules to match weather conditions, and lay new eggs if their first set doesn’t survive.
Gentoos can also start new colonies more easily than other species, and they have been moving south as the ice retreats. “We can look at these satellite images and see that the glaciers are gone, and the gentoo penguins have arrived,” says Lynch.
The outlook for the other species is not so good. The emperor penguin, which lives closest to the pole, is the most threatened. “By the end of the century there won’t be many emperor penguins left,” says Stephanie Jenouvrier, head of the Jenouvrier Seabirds Lab at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Under the business-as-usual scenario, they are marching to extinction.”
She explains global warming is destroying their habitat. “Their fate is tied to the sea ice, because they use it as their home base for breeding, moulting and feeding,” says Jenouvrier. “Because they are breeding on the southernmost place on earth, there is very little option for them to move elsewhere.”
Human action can still make a difference, she adds. If warming is limited to 2C by the end of the century, as outlined in the Paris climate agreement, the emperor penguin population will fall by only 44 per cent, according to a paper Jenouvrier published last year. But if emissions continue on their current trajectory, more than 80 per cent will disappear by 2100.
Other species face a more mixed future. The Adélie penguins — the most plentiful species with four million pairs — appear to be increasing in the relatively cool East Antarctica but declining in the warming parts of the Antarctic Peninsula. “There will be climate change winners and climate change losers,” says Lynch. “Climate change can have all these different manifestations. It is not just about it all becoming an empty wasteland, you have species moving around and establishing in new areas.”
Understanding how animal systems are changing is critical for humans as well. “The peninsula is an important barometer to what we might see in future, including further south, as climate change proceeds,” says Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey, who I meet in Cambridge ahead of the trip. “We really need to get a handle on the ecology. If you look across the planet, mankind depends on protein from plants and animals.”
At a time of rapid transformation, species that are more flexible usually do better. “It is true there will be losers and winners with climate change, and this will depend on their capacity to adapt,” says Jenouvrier. “It will make a difference not only for the emperor penguin, it will make a difference for every species on earth, including us and our children.”
Tracking species and populations may be about to get a lot easier. Satellite and drone imagery, combined with improvements in computer vision, are about to revolutionise the counting of animals. This is already under way on board Greenpeace’s Esperanza, where the penguin team has set up an office inside a shipping container to process drone images, which will be used to train computers to do the counting. The days of researchers personally visiting colonies for surveys may be coming to an end.
Forrest shows me an image of penguins on a rock outcrop — with green dots that mark the edge of each nest. He explains how to tell whether it is a nest or not — is there a grey blob indicating a chick? Are there rocks around it or a circle of guano that indicates habitation? “That’s what these guys will be doing, drawing boxes around the nests . . . That is the iterative process that gets the computer trained.”
Lynch, who uses satellite data to identify new penguin colonies, points out that until now, ecologists have spent a lot of their time just trying to find the species they are studying. “The mere surveying of animals is going to get easier,” she says. “Ecologists like myself can spend more time understanding the underlying dynamics, rather than just figuring out where all the animals are.” There are still limitations — drones can only fly so far and the computer algorithms haven’t yet been fully trained — but accuracy is improving quickly.
Satellite surveys may even be helpful for tracking whale populations, one of the great unsolved mysteries of the ocean. Whales are hard to count because they migrate over long distances and spend a lot of time underwater. Jennifer Jackson, a whale specialist at the British Antarctic Survey, explains that they are trying to use satellites to count them from space.
After being hunted for centuries, whale populations are now coming back, following the end of whaling in the 1980s. The humpback whale population seems to be on its way to a full recovery in some areas. “It is clear that protection from whaling has worked,” says Jackson. She led a recent survey near South Georgia, a sub-Antarctic Island, which saw 55 blue whales, an unprecedented number.
However the return of the whales also means that they are eating a lot more krill. Whales are the biggest consumers in the ecosystem, and the shift in krill consumption, combined with warmer oceans and shifting currents, makes it very difficult for scientists to know exactly how krill populations are changing, and why. Some evidence suggests that krill have moved south — further toward the pole — due to climate change. Others think the increase in whales has reduced the krill available for penguins.
“There are a lot of compounding issues,” says Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey. “Understanding the science of climate change, recovering marine mammals and fishing trends is a perfect storm of ‘science needed’.”
The politics of fishing in these icy waters plays a part as well. There are growing calls for more limits on fishing in several new marine protected areas but progress is stalled at the 25-member body that regulates fishing, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). A proposal by Chile and Argentina to protect the Antarctic Peninsula from fishing has been deadlocked for eight years, mainly due to opposition from China and Russia, which both have fishing fleets in the Southern Ocean. A similar effort to create a protected area in East Antarctica, supported by Australia and the EU, has also been blocked.
“It is about trying to future-proof the Southern Ocean,” says Jackson, the whale specialist. “Whale populations are recovering, and we don’t really know how that will impact things.”
For environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the recovery of the whales represents a major victory after decades of campaigns. In the mess hall of the Arctic Sunrise, a newspaper front page is proudly displayed over the water: “Japanese ram protest ship”, it reads, a reference to an incident in 2006.
Greenpeace is now turning its focus to the ocean as a whole. It has been advocating for a Global Ocean Treaty, fighting oil drilling in the Arctic and pushing for rules on deep-sea mining. “At the moment, there is no one who holds CCAMLR accountable for their failures,” says Frida Bengtsson, a campaigner with Greenpeace. “To see the Southern Ocean protected would be amazing.”
Humans first laid eyes on Antarctica 200 years ago, and since then one wave of exploitation has followed another. First there were the sealers, then the whalers, who hunted several species to the brink of extinction. In the 20th century, the polar explorers and scientific bases left their mark, as empires jockeyed for influence. Seven countries have laid claim to Antarctica although, under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, they all agreed to dedicate the continent to peace and science.
Most recently, the arrival of tourists has brought new pressures. This season Antarctica will have 40 per cent more visitors than it did last year, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. The association expects 78,000 people, mainly from the US and China, to visit between November 2019 and March 2020. Dozens of ice-capable cruise ships are currently under construction and tourism is expected to keep growing.
“Some people come visit and they say, ‘OK, I’ve seen it’. But others come and say — ‘Wow, I love it’ — and I was like that . . . ” says Carola Rackete, the third mate on the Arctic Sunrise, an ecologist and ice-pilot who became famous last year after she was arrested for docking a migrant rescue vessel in the Italian port of Lampedusa. But her real passion is the polar regions and she worries about the changes she has seen over the past nine years.
“People like to have the idea that there is still a true wilderness on the planet, a place that humans haven’t touched,” she says. “But I don’t think that place really exists any more.”
For many tourists, Antarctica is the last unexplored frontier. Partly because it is so inhospitable, it has always appealed to the human instinct to conquer, to assert, to explore. But as the changes on the planet accelerate, it is also poised to become one of the most vulnerable places in a warmer world.
It won’t be the first time the continent has heated up — in past geologic epochs, it was warm enough to have trees and plants. But the planet was vastly different then, with much higher sea levels and hotter average temperatures. “Antarctica evolved from a very warm world, to this white Antarctica today,” says Leppe, the head of the Chilean Antarctic Institute. “This past of Antarctica is not so distant. Three million years ago, we had the peninsula without ice.”
While Antarctica has seen warm temperatures before, humans have not. Leppe pulls up a chart showing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which rose above 400 parts per million in 2015. The last time that happened was three million years ago. “This is the first time that as a species, as Homo sapiens, we are passing through 400ppm. So nobody, no cultures, no humans can explain how we can face this big challenge.”
The best we may be able to hope for is to better understand what is happening, and try to act before it is too late. Just as the little chinstrap penguin can show us the bigger changes taking place across the food chain, so Antarctica as a whole may help provide the answers to our own future.
Leslie Hook is the FT’s environment and clean energy correspondent
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our culture podcast, Culture Call, where editors Gris and Lilah dig into the trends shaping life in the 2020s, interview the people breaking new ground and bring you behind the scenes of FT Life & Arts journalism. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.