Where will penguins and humans go . . .
When All The Ice Melts
by RON NAVEEN
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
• Real Climate
• NYT on Climate
• Intergovernmental Panel On Cliamte Change (IPCC)
• A Few Things Ill Considered / How To Talk To Sceptics
FIELD NOTES FROM A CATASTROPHE
Man, Nature, and Climate Change.
by Elizabeth Kolbert.
Bloomsbury. 210 pp.
THE WEATHER MAKERS
How Man Is Changing the Climate and
What It Means for Life on Earth.
by Tim Flannery.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 357 pp.
THE WINDS OF CHANGE
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.
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.
“It's never over until it's over!”
Can we find a way forward, together?
Well . . . to paraphrase the American baseball player and armchair
philosopher, Yogi Berra: