A Journey to the Future in Antarctica
By Fen Montaigne
Illustrated. 288 pp. $26
Review by ELIZABETH ROYTE
In the austral summer of 2005-6, the veteran magazine journalist Fen Montaigne traveled to Palmer Station in Antarctica to work with the highly regarded polar ecologist Bill Fraser. For nearly five months, Montaigne gamely weighed and banded Adélie penguins and their predators, attached radio tags to feathers, dodged shooting streams of gack (giant-petrel vomit), sifted through guano in search of silverfish otoliths and reveled in the sensory delights of “the most alien and beautiful place on the planet.”
But this is no straightforward work of natural history with Fraser as heroic guide. It’s a morality tale, in which Fraser plays an unsociable Cassandra who’s entrusted his tidings to a sympathetic messenger. Luckily for readers, Montaigne has wrapped his portrait of a place on the brink of oblivion inside a penguin love fest.
Bill Fraser has been closely observing and recording the habits of birds near Palmer Station for 35 years. Such depth of experience allowed him to notice some troubling changes. Adélie penguin colonies, and the brown skuas that depend on them for sustenance, were rapidly declining; chinstrap penguins were moving in; and the population of fur seals and leopard seals was on the rise. What was going on?
Laboriously pondering factors biological and meteorological, Fraser eventually linked local Adélie declines with the cascade effects of warmer winter air and sea temperatures along the peninsula. Higher temperatures bring more snow, which delays the start of mating and nesting season, which results in smaller penguin chicks and a higher mortality rate. Warmer seas reduce the extent of sea ice, which krill (penguin food) depend on and Adélies rest upon before launching foraging trips into the Southern Ocean.
It gets worse: with adult penguins traveling farther to fill their bellies, chicks are left vulnerable to those skuas. Predators from hell, skuas rule Adélie colonies with “Mafia-like domination,” Montaigne writes, ripping the heads off chicks and eating the krill from their stomachs while they’re still alive.
Climate change is warming the poles faster than many other places on the planet, which means that polar scientists are coming to grips with these changes sooner than most anyone else. “Fraser’s Penguins,” portions of which appeared in The New Yorker, warns that what’s happening on the Antarctic Peninsula now is a taste of unsettling changes, elsewhere, to come. Should the West Antarctic Ice Sheet continue to melt, global sea levels could rise dramatically, in one NASA scientist’s opinion inundating Washington — and other coastal cities — by the end of this century.
For Fraser, the warming has a moral dimension. The Antarctic has been virtually untouched by man, and it’s a place where humans are, as many visitors over roughly 200 years of exploration have noted, entirely inconsequential. But now, the long carbonic reach of industrialized society is quickly wiping out one of the toughest creatures on earth, a species that’s hard-wired to the polar desert and cannot adapt.
Montaigne is a controlled writer, offering careful and clear explanations of matters technical and lexicographic, biologically microscopic and meteorologically global. But it’s his descriptive prowess, his ability to evoke lavender — and cobalt, magenta and violet — without waxing purple, that most impresses. Sounds and smells are skillfully conveyed: the flippers of two fighting Adélies sound like “the thumping of a stick on a carpet being cleaned.” While some team members compare the smell of a newly hatched penguin to Doritos, Montaigne associates the aroma with “the scent of my dog’s paws.” After being stalked and nearly pounced upon by a killer whale, Montaigne writes, “I was so amazed by this performance that I cannot remember exactly what the orca looked like.” Sometimes telling less reveals more. At other times, Montaigne gives thrilling, blow-by-blow accounts of bird battles and breakups.
Elizabeth Royte’s latest book is “Bottle¬mania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water.”