Field Report from Antarctica, #1: Feeling the Heat (and Cold) at Palmer Station

The author stands on the ARSV Laurence M. Gould as it pulls into the dock at Palmer Station, on Anvers Island on the West Antractic Peninsula.
I’m not sure why I was surprised to find the Antarctic icy. Perhaps it was all of the peer-reviewed scientific studies I’ve had on my austral summer reading list. In fact, the West Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster than anywhere on earth, those studies show; winter air temperatures have increased by 11 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 50 years (five times the global average). Nevertheless, when I woke up Monday morning in the Gerlache Strait, aboard the Antarctic Research and Supply Vessel (ARSV) Laurence M. Gould, I was utterly astounded by the stark white scenery. Bits of ice, called brash, littered the ship’s path. Sharp snowy peaks and thick ice shelves lined both sides of the channel.

I’m lucky enough to experience Antarctica firsthand because of a science journalism fellowship from Wood’s Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. (In 2003, as a senior editor at Audubon, another MBL fellowship took me to the Arctic.) A week ago I flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, and boarded the vessel that 967 miles later would deliver me to the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Station on Anvers Island. South American terns, imperial cormorants and Magellenic diving petrels accompanied us on the first part of the two-day journey. By the time we pulled into Palmer yesterday afternoon, they’d been replaced by snowy sheathbills, wandering albatross and gentoo penguins.

In the tiny outpost of Palmer—by far the smallest of the three U.S. Antarctic research stations—a dozen or so scientists (supported by a similar number of staff) chip away at different angles to the same troubling question: How will the marine ecosystem of the Antarctic Peninsula respond to rapid climate change? The answer will have significant implications for marine ecosystems everywhere. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll have the opportunity to tag along with researchers studying how already-dramatic shifts—to the region’s atmosphere, ocean circulation, and sea ice cover—ripple up the food chain from bacteria and diatoms to penguins and whales.

Yesterday the ARSV Gould pushed off from the dock at Palmer station carrying a team from the nonprofit foundation Oceanites. They’ll spend the next two weeks visiting the tiny islands of the Antarctic Peninsula, counting stone penguin nests. Since its surveys began 15 years ago, Oceanites researchers have seen the numbers of Adélie penguins declining by 15 to 20 percent at almost every site sampled, says Steve Forrest, a member of the team on the Gould. “If we project those lines into the future, we’re looking at breeding extinction by 2020, pretty much peninsula wide,” he says.

Adélies have high site fidelity, meaning they’re hard-wired to return to the same rookery year after year, even if it’s no longer a good source for food—and long-term research at Palmer indicates that seems to be the case. An increased number of cloudy days, strong winds and reduced ice cover have resulted in smaller phytoplankton blooms, which in turn has consequences for the Adélies’ preferred food source: Antarctic krill. “Our data is backing up the really detailed studies on the bases,” Forrest says. “We can take data from 80 to 100 sites and say, yeah, what they’re seeing is not just an artifact of a condition at Palmer station—it’s part of a larger story.”

There’s much more to say on the nuanced topic of that larger story, and as soon as the 50-knot winds whipping the ocean into whitecaps begin to calm, I’ll be able to offer some reports from the field. Stay tuned to The Perch for updates on the research at Palmer, or follow me on Twitter @PopPenguins.

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”