Penguins and the Post-Pandemic Climate Curve

Flattening the COVID-19 curve is formidable, unnerving, dispiriting, taking forever — and just a harrowing prelude to the post-pandemic “climate curve” we’ll face when our lives begin anew. I know because I work at climate’s cutting edge. We’re in for another lengthy fight that’s straight uphill, but I have hope. Let me explain.

The Antarctic Peninsula, where I count penguins and monitor environmental change, is about as far away and physically distanced from the rest of humankind as is possible. It’s a place that truly deserves to be called “awesome” and I feel blessed and privileged to have spent 36 of the last 39 austral spring and summer field seasons cavorting in, on, and among beyond-description landscapes, seascapes, and icescapes. Being there is like being present when time began.

The whole continent is the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined and almost completely covered by ice up to more than two miles thick, which represents 90% of all ice on the planet and 70% of our fresh water. It’s unowned and governed collectively for peace, science, and conservation under the 54-member nation Antarctic Treaty. There are more than six million penguin nests of five species continent-wide. On the ground, one is consumed and becomes acutely aware there are no newspapers, no airplane contrails, no modern conveniences, and no politicians — just you, penguin noise, and throbbing heartbeats pounding through your parka as you witness the most spectacular scenery on Earth. I’m not particularly religious, but this is my spiritual home. It makes me dream.

Despite the far proximity, we carbon consumers to the north have caused havoc way south. My penguin workplace has warmed by a whopping 3˚C. / 5˚F. year-round and I’ve witnessed changes, big changes, up close and personally. I now can walk beaches that were formerly icebound. Some of my penguin study colonies have shrunk in half. Winter sea ice has diminished and springtime rain is more common. Ice shelves the size of U.S. states are calving off to sea. Huge glaciers are melting and cracking and relentlessly pursuing a similar fate.

In this circumstance, I’m humbled recalling that penguins, my research subjects, have been cavorting Earth in some form or another for 40-60 million years. We humans, by contrast, are mere millennial twigs on Darwin’s evolutionary tree. These toddling, upright, human-like creatures might not be the smartest animals on the planet, and their guano-laden colonies are olfactory nightmares, but, to my open eyes and ears, penguins are sending messages we shouldn’t ignore.

In particular, that now’s the time to really make a difference for our children and grandchildren, to ensure the vital aspects of our lives as the warming comes our way.

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic on our entire world is almost inconceivable. But one thing is certain: While we’re hopefully going to flatten the curve and ultimately wipe out this virus, in regard to climate change, there’s no way to flatten the carbon curve without a massive, global rethink about who we humans are and all we do. The pandemic is, surely and clearly, just a harbinger of our climate-changed world to come.

Soon, it will be about that curve, all the time, and the focus must be on whether, like penguins, we’ll be able to live in a sustainable world with food to eat, good homes, a healthy environment free of disease, and continuing to produce kids and grandkids.

It means reaching and engaging everyone we can — irrespective of political persuasion or economic situation — about adapting to a new reality. It will be costly, it won’t be easy, priorities will change, and we’ll need enlightened leadership. A daunting prospect? Perhaps. And yet, I’m optimistic.


Because of what we learn from the penguin world. One species in the Antarctic Peninsula — gentoo penguins — is thriving, increasing its numbers, and expanding its breeding territory amid the vast warming they face. We’re also aware of total wipeouts of a season’s chicks in a number of emperor penguin colonies; and yet, these colonies’ populations remain stable or are actually increasing.

And so I dream that we, like penguins, will be resilient. After all, they’re biological creatures with the same vital needs for life that we have. We, too, can adapt and survive.

But we have to do this together.

It’s time to think big, structurally, communally, and otherwise. In our country and globally. No question, we’re looking at huge and unprecedented investments in science, a large degree of international cooperation, and a collaboration of major global funding sources.

Because flattening the “climate curve” and adapting to our new reality involves all of us, everywhere. For the sake of humankind, we have no choice.

ASI Season Update

The 25th anniversary season of the Antarctic Site Inventory was successful and is now history. We are busy toting up our counts with data ultimately to be logged into our continent-wide MAPPPD database. We continue to be the only project monitoring penguin populations throughout the Antarctic Peninsula and many thanks to all our counters for their diligence and hard work.

It happened to be a brutal year for gentoo penguins in the central Gerlache Strait. NOV/DEC nest set-up was plagued by an inordinate amount of snowfall, with tall drifts lingering through mid-January. We had a shockingly low gentoo chick count at Danco Island on JAN 20. Many of the gentoos were seemingly trying to relay, but close inspection found that, while many were in brood position, there were no eggs or only one egg underneath. And of course, even if these eggs hatched, chick survival would be unlikely this late in the season.

By contrast, south in Marguerite Bay, particularly at Red Rock Ridge and Lagotellerie Island, we reaffirmed our conclusion five years ago of a ‘productivity dividing line’ in northern Marguerite Bay, south of which Adélie penguins are thriving, in contrast to the northern Peninsula where they aren’t. Once we get into our more detailed climate analyses, I’m keen to understand why this is so.

As well, my colleague Grant Humphries and I had the good fortune of working with a film crew from the US-based Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) NewsHour — and I’m pleased that, later this month, the NewsHour will be broadcasting a special 4-part Antarctic series featuring segments on Oceanites, penguins, and the Antarctic Site Inventory; climate change; the Antarctic Treaty; and tourism. We’ll keep you posted on broadcast dates.

. . . Ron Naveen

Reflections on CCAMLR 2018

The 37th meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources has just concluded, Oceanites once again participating as an officially invited, international expert observer.

On larger matters before countries that are members of this Commission, I sadly report that none of the three proposed marine protected areas (MPAs) — East Antarctica, Weddell Sea, Antarctic Peninsula —were adopted, despite vigorous support around the table, except from China and Russia. Also very discouraging, from the vantage of Oceanites’ promoting awareness of climate change, China and Russia blocked a proposal for requiring climate change implications statements in any and all working papers brought before the Commission. The depressing irony is that all of this played out simultaneously with news of further collapse of the Pine Island glacier in west Antarctica, producing an iceberg five times the size of Manhattan.

From the vantage of Oceanites’ championing science-based conservation, my colleague Grant Humphries and I had multiple discussions with fellow penguin scientists, statistical experts, and diplomats from Argentina, Belgium, Norway, the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile, all aimed at increasing the flow of penguin population data into our continent-wide MAPPPD database. It is gratifying that MAPPPD is increasingly being used by other Antarctic researchers and, over the past year, was cited in 13 peer-reviewed scientific publications.

In addition, we continued fruitful discussions with members of the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting companies (ARK), both in regard to their fishing data assisting Oceanites’ analysis of climate change impacts and Oceanites assisting ARK in its voluntary efforts to implement fishing buffer zones in the vicinity of penguin breeding colonies.

If a major concern regarding penguin conservation is potential impacts from fishing, I’d argue that using our data to encourage ongoing, voluntary efforts by this particular stakeholder will, in the long run, prove enormously effective absent other officially adopted measures. The tourism industry, for example, already does a considerable amount of self-regulation and prospects for the krill fishing industry being similarly pro-active are encouraging. Again, what drives this forward is our putting data and scientific analyses on the table that truly force the system forward.

All in all, however, reality bites. Our good work marches onward and upward. Others’ good work continues. But, end of the day, it’s frustrating, if not galling and sobering, that the wiles and vagaries of international power politics diminish the scientific facts before us, and doom conservation measures that should flow therefrom.

. . . Ron Naveen

My dear friend Mark . . .

With immense sorrow — all of us who knew Mark Epstein are saddened beyond description that he has passed away. He fought nobly and optimistically for his life, and, even with the end nearing, maintained his playfully mischievous sense of humor and zest for being with his friends and colleagues. All of us extend heartfelt sympathies to his mom, his children, and family. He didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him for what he was going through; rather, he wanted to continue living to the fullest, as best he could under the circumstances. He was incredibly courageous.

Mark’s fighting spirit infused all causes in which he engaged, from coral reefs to spotted owls and rainforests, to Antarctica, the Southern Ocean, and penguins. He stood tall, fighting strategically for long-term good and lasting results. Short-term, fleeting tactical gains just weren’t his idea of progress.

In recent years, I worked very closely with Mark to fashion a long-term vision and mission for Oceanites, and was totally inspired by what Mark brought to the table. That’s what will endure. He instilled in me and all of us who’ve ever worked with him the notion of seeking higher ground and a higher purpose, to carefully and methodically and strategically chase everlasting goals, for ourselves and for our planet.

Perhaps my fondest recollections are of the many serious, intellectual backs-and-forths we had about everything from US politics to maintaining and enhancing the achievements of the Antarctic Treaty system. We could differ and disagree, but there was always respect for each other’s opinions and, at the end of the discussion, fashioning a positive way forward.

In his inimitable way, Mark spread considerable joy and knowledge to a wide cohort of people. He led the life he intended and fought hard for what he believed in. He will continue to inspire me and remain, forever, in my thoughts. And I will miss him immensely.

. . . Ron Naveen


Do whatever you can, wherever you live, to #StandWithPenguins and #StandWithScience.

How to describe what I’m feeling today … with more than 30 seasons in Antarctica under my belt … having actually witnessed changes firsthand like glaciers receding, ice shelves that have calved off, penguin populations significantly falling (and, in one case, rising)?

Climate change is real and undeniable. It is happening now.

We humans north of Antarctica already are affected, will experience more of this at some point, and I am profoundly depressed by the US decision today — my country’s decision — to back away from the Paris Climate Accord.

We pathetically join Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations on the planet abstaining from this monumental agreement and its carbon reduction targets. I am embarrassed. My country is shamed.

The only hope is that this decidedly immoral decision ultimately will be reversed by all of us, however we can and wherever we live, redoubling our efforts scientifically, educationally, politically, and otherwise to influence those holding the strings to change course.

I’ve long argued that, because we humans live in the present tense, it’s often difficult to think generationally. But thinking about penguins and Antarctica has helped me think longer term. And now that I have grandchildren, it’s rather easy to conjure, and perhaps fear, what it will be like for them and their children in short years to come.

Penguins, the sentinels of climate change that I study.

Please help us continue to bring science to the table.

Please continue supporting the #ParisAccord.

Please, #StandWithPenguins and #StandWithScience.


Antarctica’s Cracking Larsen C Ice Shelf . . .

As we’ve covered news of the growing crack in Antarctica’s Larsen C Ice Shelf a number of times in recent months, it seems worth providing an update here. While the enormous (probably more than 5,000 km²) soon-to-be iceberg has yet to actually calve, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey recently captured a video of the ice

Source: Video: Antarctica’s Cracking Larsen C Ice Shelf | CleanTechnica