Climate Witness: Meredith Hooper, Antarctica

Posted on November, 08 2007

In the summer of 2001-2, writer Meredith Hooper witnessed unprecedented amounts of snow and rain wreak havoc on a colony of Adélie’s penguins in Antarctica. Scientists working on climate variability on the Antarctic Peninsula accept that the extreme weather is evidence of the planet's warming.
I'm Meredith Hooper, living in London. But I grew up on the Australian coast. South, beyond the wild ocean, was the great continent of Antarctica. To me - Antarctica was mysterious, unapproachable. I never thought I would ever go there.

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I've been lucky. I've travelled there as a writer four times since 1994, long journeys on research ships, or living months in research stations with scientists and support staff. No humans live permanently in Antarctica, or ever have. We humans come mostly for the summer - when millions of sea birds and seals are feeding in the cold clear waters.

The Adélie penguin and climate change
Every October, in early summer, Adélie penguins swim in to small rocky islands just off Palmer Station, the smallest of the US Antarctic bases, to build their nests and raise their chicks. Excavation of abandoned nest sites show that Adélies have been coming to these islands on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula for 700 years.

Then - suddenly - during the summer of 2001-02, Palmer's Adélies were hammered. Storms roared down from the north. Unprecedented amounts of snow buried the penguins on their pebble nests. Melting snow drowned eggs. Birds abandoned their nests, unable to sustain the effort. Forty per cent of the expected number of Adélies never even arrived to begin the annual business of rearing the season's chicks. Half way through summer, rain starting belting down. Palmer has snow - sleet - but not rain. Chicks' down isn't waterproof. Many were too small to survive, hatched late because the unseasonable snow had delayed nest building, and mating. 

Nothing like this weather had been seen. The pattern stuck for 5 months, wrapped around the top of the Antarctic Peninsula like a collar, lasting from October 2001 to the end of February 2002. The warmest temperatures so far recorded hit the region.

The "ferocious summer"
I experienced this summer, when climate change really kicked in at Palmer. I'd come to the station to research a book about Palmer's Adélies, and the ideas of US seabird ecologist Dr Bill Fraser who had been studying them most of his working life. I'd lived at Palmer 3 years earlier. Days were calm and sunny, Adélie colonies crowded, parents intent on feeding insistent chicks - the sounds and smells of success.

Now Bill and the field team struggled to achieve the season's work, through rough seas, high winds, driving snow and rain. Bill used strong adjectives to describe what the weather was dealing. One phrase, 'ferocious summer,' stuck in my mind. When I began writing about what I had seen and learnt at Palmer - I had my book's title: The Ferocious Summer.

Counting the Adélies at Palmer began in 1975, with a total of 15,202 breeding pairs arriving at the 5 study site islands. Data continued to be collected each season: breeding pairs, egg and chick totals, number of fledglings leaving the colonies at summer's end to begin life at sea. But every year fewer Adélies returned. Bill Fraser argued that numbers were reducing because of climate change. Increasing warmth resulted in less sea ice, on which Adélies and their prey depend. Warmer temperatures brought increasing snow with severe impacts on vulnerable nesting sites. Now the ferocious summer of 2001-2002 was delivering the final proof of climate change. The number of Adélies arriving at the study islands plummeted to 4,288 pairs, compared with 7,161 pairs the year before.

Despite a brief recovery, Adélie numbers have continued inexorably down.
The western side of the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places on earth. On the western side of the peninsula surface temperatures in July - mid winter - have gone up 6.3 ºC since 1951. With increasing warmth, the ecology is changing. Penguin species from further north - gentoos, and chinstraps - are taking over nest sites at Palmer. Elephant seals and fur seals swim south during summer to haul out on the islands. 

Time scales of sufficient length need to be in place to deliver real value in understanding climate change, and the years of data assembled by the seabird ecologists at Palmer have been essential. Scientists working on climate variability on the Antarctic Peninsula accept that what has happened to Palmer's penguins as evidence for the planet's warming.  

Being at Palmer has brought me up against the complex ways climate change can impact on a place, and everything that lives there. The ferocious summer delivered highly anomalous weather - frequent and intense storms from the north, with quantities of wet snow. The weather affected the peninsula's sea ice. The annual growth and decline of Antarctica's sea ice - the vast expanding and contracting of frozen white, the winter freezing, and summer melt - is central to the way our planet functions. But along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula there has been a 40% decrease in the mean annual sea ice extent since 1979, when reliable satellite observations became available. Sea ice, and the detail of what happens to it each year, is vital to the survival of Adélies. A jigsaw of impacts were unseating Palmer's Adélies from an environment that has matched their needs.  

Rate of change is greater than many scientists predicted
In the polar regions many scientists admit that events - processes - the speed of change - are greater, more rapid, more profound, than they had ever anticipated. Antarctica has around 70% of all our fresh water, locked up as ice. But now warming is worming away at the stores. When Antarctica's ice starts to leak - as it is, without any doubt, along the Antarctic Peninsula - that really matters. Now. To all of us.

I'm not a scientist; I watch, talk, listen, try and comprehend, then use my experience as a writer to help stitch an awareness of Antarctica into people's thinking, and imaginations.

I tell the story of Palmer's penguins in my book The Ferocious Summer as a way of bringing understanding of climate change to a wide audience. Palmer's Adélies live in a remote and beautiful place. They are only a small subset of Antarctica's Adélies.

But - to me - their story is a kind of parable. Adélies have been living at Palmer, in desirable ocean-front locations, for seven centuries. Now the conditions have changed. They can't manage any more. They are disappearing. Their story can stand for so many of our planet's inhabitants.

Find out more about Meredith Hooper's book, The Ferocious Summer, and a biography of the author.


Scientific review

Reviewed by: Dr Jorge Strelin, Director, Instituto Antartico Argentino, Argentina

Meredith’s witness story is an objective description of what is happening on the Western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, between Anvers Island and South Shetland Islands.

Meredith’s observations are consistent with the recent study of human impacts on the Northern Antarctic Peninsula climate but it is worthy to say is that this observation is restricted to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The signal that represents the impact of human activity in the rest of Antarctica, where the climate models didn´t work so well, is probably too small and consequently hard to find. More research is necessary to argue that the recent (last 30 years) warming is an exceptional situation in the rest of the Antarctic region.

Marshall, G.J., A. Orr, N. P.M. van Lipzig, and J. C. King (2006) The impact of a changing Southern Hemisphere Annular Mode on Antarctic Peninsula summer temperatures. Journal of Climate, 19, 5388—5404.

All articles are subject to scientific review by a member of the Climate Witness Science Advisory Panel.
Meredith Hooper, Climate Witness, Antarctica
Meredith Hooper, Climate Witness, Antarctica
© Jennifer Tabor
Adélie’s penguins on Torgersen Island, off Palmer Station, Antarctic Peninsula.
Adélie’s penguins on Torgersen Island, off Palmer Station, Antarctic Peninsula.
© Cara Sucher (used with kind permission)
courtesy of Meredith Hooper, Climate Witness
Adélie's penguins in blizzard, Torgersen island off Palmer Station, Antarctic Peninsula.
© Heidi Geisz