Climate Change


Where will penguins and humans go . . .

When All The Ice Melts



The most pressing concern facing humankind is global warming.

Hardly a day passes without another gloomy pronouncement about the perils on our immediate horizon, including, among many, a possible weakening of the Gulf Stream, more species extinctions, or the increasing intensity of hurricanes and typhoons. So worrying that, as American writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben recently noted, we’re entering a phase when people will wonder loudly why we didn’t act sooner.


The recent media hubbub about global warming is welcome, but, sadly, an abject reminder that, at best, we’re only taking meager, tiptoe steps down a long and difficult road. I’m decidedly more anxious about the issue of global warming because I work at the epicenter of this emerging catastrophe — counting penguins in the Antarctic Peninsula, where it’s warming faster than any other place on the planet.

Heartbreakingly, no one’s listening to scientists on the “front lines” who are sweating the details and collecting hard-won data to explain why and how our watery globe is changing. We’re on a collision course with extinction and steps we take now could dictate our own survival.

But this isn’t a debate about science and policy. The scientific evidence points clearly in one direction and the problem, quite simply, is getting everyone to think seriously about the future.

It’s gut-wrenching being so close to this issue. Antarctica — the proverbial “Wild Ice” — is my home, where I’ve worked for 24 austral summers. And, from my vantage, global warming is staggeringly personal. In my relatively brief time, Antarctic Peninsula blue-eyed shag populations have declined significantly, Adélie penguin populations have decreased by half, the Larsen Ice Shelf has collapsed, and it's now possible to circumnavigate James Ross Island. 

These changes are precursors of ominous, future changes in more temperate latitudes. And what should be clicking in our collective consciousness is that, evolutionarily speaking, all life — whether penguins, humans, butterflies, or dinosaurs — only succeeds if four factors are in synch: food, sex, weather, and breeding territory. If one of these determinants fails, extinction looms.

So . . . will our food supply be there, decades hence?

Will we continue enjoying relatively peaceful and benign weather?

Will we continue finding mates with whom to breed successfully, and homes that provide sufficient protection?

Maybe yes.

But, perhaps not.

At the end of the day, those Antarctic penguins are sending lots of signals about our planet and what we need to do to keep it healthy. Are we listening? They teach us about the sensitive, evolutionary balancing act facing all creatures, humans or otherwise. This involves food to eat, a mate with whom the reproduce, decent weather, and a sufficiently safe home.

Extinctions happen and there’s no guarantee that our fate won’t resemble that of the dinosaurs — dominance and, then, a quick fade to black. But it makes no sense, even if an end may be coming, to hasten our own demise. That would be the ultimate folly. What we learn from penguins is that we’re on a suicidal course, willy-nilly destroying the favorable conditions allowing us to survive. The conundrum, of course, is that we humans live for the moment and don’t truly think beyond our own immediate needs. We’re not disposed to thinking too far ahead.

But that can change. And, hopefully, will.

Earth is warming, the unprecedented warming over the last decade-and-a-half is clearly human-induced, and our increased levels of atmospheric carbon bode nothing but ill for Homo sapiens. Because of the inherent inertia of Earth’s climate, we’ve already set calamity in motion. Ice caps and glaciers will continue to vanish and diminish, sea levels will rise, islands and land will disappear, and, at some point, some of us will find food and many others won’t. Multiply the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina in the US by hundreds if not thousands of times worldwide, and one sees the far horizon filling with political instabilities and the collapse of civilizations.

Humans emerged from the ice into this warm Holocene epoch and, in all respects, have dominated. Most frightfully, in the geologically short period from the start of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century to now, carbon concentrations and average temperatures in our atmosphere have risen dramatically, from 280 parts per million (ppm) and 13.8° C (56.8°F) to more than 380 ppm and 14.4°C (58.0°F). And it’s now estimated that carbon concentrations will increase to more than 600 ppm and that temperatures will increase between 1.4 to 5.8°C (2.5 to 10.4°F). No wonder experts call for a 70% reduction in planetary carbon emissions by 2050, when 70% of us will still be alive.

Increased levels of carbon dioxide warm the atmosphere and trigger the production of more water vapor (also, technically, a greenhouse gas), which takes temperature even higher — the essence of what scientists describe as a positive feedback loop. Another disturbing factor is that carbon dioxide is long-lived and that the atmosphere still contains more than 50% of the carbon dioxide humans have generated since we first burned fossil fuels.

Another part of the puzzle is examining what’s been and what might be. Actual temperatures have been recorded only for the last 150 years (and for fewer than 60 years in the Antarctic), and carbon dioxide concentrations only have been measured since the 1950s. Tracking farther backward requires proxies, the most impressive of which involve air samples trapped in two-mile or longer ice cores drilled from the massive ice domes of Antarctica and Greenland, and supplemented by ice cores from deep mountainous glaciers around the world.

Over geological history, Earth’s climate has shifted as a result of its own wobbling orbit around the sun, as well as the changing tilt of Earth’s axis, but these mechanisms don’t account for recent temperature spikes. Dynamically, the ice cores reveal 650,000 years of ice ages interspersed with warmer interglacial periods, and a remarkable correlation between the planet’s temperature and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Played out against more recent thermometer readings, the unprecedented temperature spike in the last few decades only can be explained by excessive, human-caused additions of carbon — the cars we drive, and the oil, wood, and coal we burn.

Startlingly, our present moments represent the longest and warmest interglacial period of all time. The science intimates a future in which we’ll be hotter, hungrier, and poorer, disease will be rampant, and there’s no telling what political or military consequences might ensue. Effects aren’t linear and, more likely, will be exponential and tragic.

All in all, if humility takes hold, we should recognize that we’re lucky to be here in the first place. But, weirdly, unacceptably, we’re assisting our own demise. Climate perturbations are now linked to the rise and fall of previous societies and civilizations. There’s also the worry about a potential collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets, which would put half of Florida underwater, potentially halt the Gulf Stream, and, threateningly, put Europe under ice.

We will melt away or sweat to death.

Please check out these web links and books, which will enable you to keep abreast of the latest science and information about global warming:


• Real Climate

• NYT on Climate

• Intergovernmental Panel On Cliamte Change (IPCC)

• A Few Things Ill Considered / How To Talk To Sceptics


Man, Nature, and Climate Change.
by Elizabeth Kolbert.
Bloomsbury. 210 pp.

How Man Is Changing the Climate and
What It Means for Life on Earth.
by Tim Flannery.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 357 pp.

Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations.
by Eugene Linden
Simon & Schuster. 302 pp.

The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change
A Guide to the Debate.
by Andrew E. Dessler and Edward A. Parson
Cambridge Unversity Press. 190 pp.

Climate Crash:
Abrupt Climate Change and What It Means for Our Future.
by John D. Cox
Joseph Henry Press. 224 pp.


And please, most importantly, start “talking up” global warming wherever you go, and with whomever you encounter. Let’s engage more and more people in the discussion, to understand the evidence at hand, and to think long-term.

Can we find a way forward, together?

Well . . . to paraphrase the American baseball player and armchair philosopher, Yogi Berra:

“It's never over until it's over!”