Fraser's Penguins Offers a 'Blue Marble' View of Climate Change (Book Review)

bill fraser penguins photo

Photo credit: Fen Montaigne

In an age where information travels around the world in an instant—and moving people the same distance rarely takes more than a day—it's easy to forget how foreign ideas of great scale and scope are to the human mind. While it's easy for people to internalize and accept a concept like acid rain—specific emissions from factories in one place fall into the water downwind producing a measurable and nearly-immediate rise in acidity—it is much more difficult to grasp onto something like climate change, which is caused by actions around the world and has impacts measurable in decades, not months.

That is why the story of a scientist standing sentinel at the bottom of the Earth—in a place that is so vast and foreign it is itself difficult to imagine—observing tangible changes to the planet and its inhabitants, is both compelling and immensely important.SLIDESHOW: The Trials and Tribulations of Adélie Penguins in a Rapidly Warming Antarctic

For more than 30 years, Bill Fraser has spent several months a year on the Antarctic peninsula, monitoring the activities of Adélie penguins. For decades, his research has focused on one specific period, mating season, and has tracked the critical months that include the reunion of breeding pairs, the laying and incubation of eggs, and the rearing of young chicks. Fraser's Penguins, by Fen Montaigne, documents one of these seasons—and the startling changes that have occurred before Fraser's eyes over the course of his career.

SLIDESHOW: TreeHugger Goes to Antarctica, Meets Penguins, Seals, and More

There is a crucial moment in every Adélie penguin's life where, having been abandoned by its hungry and tired parents, it must walk to the edge of the land and make a faithful leap into the cold Antarctic waters. By taking this plunge, the chicks are initiated into adulthood and will spend the rest of the year swimming in the ocean and feeding on Antarctic krill from floating sea ice. When spring returns to Antarctica the penguins embark on an epic migration—some traveling more than 17,000 kilometers—back to the breeding grounds.

It's a primal progression that predates the arrival of the first humans to the continent—indeed it may predate human civilization itself—but one that has shown marked change in less than a single lifetime. Over the last 30 years, Montaigne explains, Fraser has watched the penguins breed, lay eggs, raise chicks, and return to the ocean but each year, fewer penguins find their way back to the breeding grounds at the beginning of the season.

The reason, Fraser's research has shown, is that steadily increasing temperatures in Antarctica have not only melted much of the penguin's essential feeding ground, they have also hurt the population of krill, the penguin's primary food source.

Though the population of penguins is still robust, with 5 million or more spread across the continent's coast, it has dropped more than 80 percent in the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula in the last 25 years.

earth blue marble photo

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1972, astronauts aboard the Apollo 17 spacecraft snapped a photograph of the earth, showing it as a solitary and fragile "blue marble" suspended in space. For the first time, there was a simple image that illustrated the importance of protecting the planet—humanity's sealed lifeboat in an endless vacuum—adding new urgency to a growing environmental movement.

The intimate story of Fraser's Penguins is a "blue marble" moment for the current climate change crisis, offering tangible evidence—spread across a single scientist's career—that, as Fraser himself says, unless something is done "all [the] places we cherish are going to change."

Read more about Fraser's Penguins
Read more about penguins:
All-Black Penguin Discovered, Seems Underdressed
Penguins Hop on the Scale for Climate Research (Video)
600 Endangered Penguin Chicks Killed By Rain

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