Fraser's Penguins

A Journey to the Future
in Antarctica

By Fen Montaigne

Henry Holt. 288 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Roland Wall


Politicians and pundits voice endless conflicting views on global warming, leaving many people wondering who and what to believe. Fen Montaigne suggests that we ignore pundits and pay attention to a hardy, medium-sized bird that lives on the ice at the bottom of the world.

In Fraser's Penguins, Montaigne details a season on the Antarctic Peninsula, charting changes in the populations of Adelie penguins. His experiences confirm that in some parts of the world, climate change is already forcing a new and troubling reality.

Obviously not averse to extreme travel, Montaigne, former Moscow bureau chief for The Philadelphia Inquirer, made a 7,000-mile trans-Asia journey for his earlier book, Reeling in Russia. This time, he embeds himself with a scientific team in one of the world's harshest locations.

Written in the clean, descriptive style of a veteran journalist, the book covers, among other things, the history of Antarctic exploration, the quirks of life at a remote research station, encounters with exotic fauna (including an unsettling meeting with orcas), detailed descriptions of each stage of penguin development, and a careful explanation of how Antarctica is reacting to large-scale climate change.

The eponymous Fraser is Bill Fraser, one of a tiny cadre of scientists who have spent their careers studying penguins. Fraser, Montaigne notes, fits "seamlessly in to the tradition of people who had devoted their lives to the study of the continent." He has a near-mystical dedication to Antarctica and its stark natural systems, but months on the ice each year for more than two decades have left him, "like many earlier explorers . . . out of place in fast-paced civilization."

The story is dominated by the day-to-day activities of penguins and the scientists who study them. The Adelies (Pygoscelis adeliae) are medium-size birds adapted to life on the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf. Since his first visit in 1975, Fraser has seen their numbers plummet. Though still numerous, in many cases once-thriving colonies are reduced to a handful of birds, or none at all.

As part of the research team, Montaigne is side by side with scientists as they track, capture, count, measure, and scrutinize flocks of birds. No one will mistake these experiences for a Disney film.

Vivid descriptions show the hardscrabble, hectic life of the penguins, "the filth and stink of an Adelie rookery on a wet day." Montaigne's account of two brown skuas - huge, predatory gulls - tearing apart a hatchling concludes, "Within a couple of minutes, about the only trace of the chick was a spot of blood on the ground."

Despite their seeming cruelty, though, it is not predators that are decimating the Adelie penguins, nor is it the harsh conditions. In fact, as Fraser notes, "the future for the brown skuas isn't any brighter than it is for the Adelies."

Both species are the victims of unprecedented changes in Antarctic temperatures. Montaigne explains how the complex interactions of the penguins, the shrimplike krill on which they feed, and the patterns of ice and snow are affected by temperatures. The Verdansky weather station, located near Fraser's study sites, reports a dramatic 11-degree Fahrenheit rise in average winter temperatures over the last 60 years, eroding the ice shelves on which the Adelies depend for feeding and breeding.

Fraser's insights connecting penguin decline to global warming came early in the scientific understanding of climate change. In 1991, he published the first paper suggesting that the replacement of Adelies by their cousins, the gentoos, was due to decreases in sea ice. Since then, Fraser and his team have collected volumes of data supporting these linkages.

Although this seems a remote and somewhat academic set of issues, a hint of its larger importance comes in the book's subtitle - "A journey to the future in Antarctica." Climate change isn't going to make Antarctica the tropics, but it is going to make it be something different than Antarctica.

Fraser himself falls back on the slightly overused cliche "canary in a coal mine," but that may not be the right analogy. The fate of the Adelie penguins is not a warning; it is one of countless outcomes the world is already living. If, as some scientists maintain, we are moving toward a tipping point, this "new Antarctica" may be one of the futures toward which we are tipping.

For those who doubt the integrity of scientists studying climate change, or the reliability of their results, Montaigne shows the personal sacrifice, danger, and discomfort that researchers endure to methodically record our path to an uncertain future. Thanks to these researchers, the Southern continent is now a window for large-scale changes in the Earth's environment.

Faced with such evidence, the book notes, "Few global-warming skeptics exist among the coterie of researchers who witnessed firsthand . . . the collapse of the ice shelves in the Arctic and along the Antarctic Peninsula."

Montaigne's penultimate chapter, "The Melting," summarizes a crushing litany of the expanding range of change induced by global warming in polar climates, with ultimate impacts on the planet's ecosystems.

"Never," according to Fraser, "has change like this taken place with so many people on earth who need these systems to survive."

Roland Wall is director of the Center for Environmental Policy at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He has a master's degree in entomology and applied ecology.