Report from 2050: Goodbye Adélies

Though they could have been saved, Antarctica's Adélie penguins have finally succumbed to global warming

[Note: This was originally published on 13.7 Billion Years as part of "Reports from 2050," a series of imagined reports from the year 2050, based on current news, recent discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

by Reynard Loki, 13.7 Billion Years

JANUARY 12, 2050 (Tierra del Fuego, Argentina) -- In his 2010 book Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica, Fen Montaigne wrote, "After flourishing for thousands of years in the harshest environment on earth, the Adélies in one part of Antarctica have encountered an obstacle they seem unable to overcome: Us."

Montaigne spent five months tracking penguins through the breeding season on the northwestern Antarctica Peninsula with biologist Bill Fraser, who spent his life studying Adélie penguins, one of the very few species to live and breed exclusively in Antarctica.

"Thanks largely to our emissions of greenhouse gases, the western Antarctica Peninsula has warmed faster than virtually any place on the planet, rendering sea ice-dependent Adélies in some areas unfit to live in an ecosystem where all forms of ice, on land and in the Southern Ocean, are in retreat," Montaigne wrote.

"Fraser attests that much has changed since he first arrived in the polar region in 1975," wrote Rick Roche in a Booklist review.

"Temperatures are up, the area’s glaciers have receded, and the ice shelf covering the nearby Weddell Sea has shrunk considerably. Krill that used to thrive under the blue ice are now harder for Adélie penguins to find. Receding ice has also allowed more predatory seals into the area. Sadly, Fraser has watched numerous penguin colonies established over 500 years ago disappear. In this sympathetic firsthand report, Montaigne describes the lives of both the researchers who brave the harsh weather and the penguins whose habitat is quickly becoming inhospitable to their reproduction. Montaigne’s compelling account is a clear and impassioned call for environmental action before the consequences of global warming turn catastrophic worldwide."

The call for action wasn't heeded, and now the Adélie penguins have been declared extinct. But this is not the end of the sad story of ecological disaster that has befallen the continent, an ongoing degradation that is a direct result of human activity. There are other species that are still there -- but on the brink. Seabirds and fish that call Antarctica home may no longer have a home to go to if warming trends continue. The melting sea ice is disappearing fast.

"Antarctica’s most pressing issue is its environment and how best to protect it," asserts Lonely Planet. "The major impacts on the Antarctic environment are caused by people who have never even visited it. Climate change and ozone depletion are prime examples of the way human activity elsewhere affects Antarctica. But studies have also found that lead particles from gasoline combustion are blown to Antarctica as soon as one month after they leave exhaust pipes in South America, Australia and New Zealand, and pesticide residue has been found both in seabird guano and in penguin tissues. Plastic and other rubbish washes up on Antarctica’s beaches in ever-increasing amounts."

"Human activity in the Antarctic is also having negative impacts. Longline fishing for Patagonian toothfish has been a twofold environmental disaster. Toothfish are caught in enormous and unsustainable numbers, with much of the catch illegal, and albatrosses in their thousands are also caught on the steel hooks, dragged down hundreds of meters and drowned -- an ignoble end for such magnificent fliers."

"The Adélies are gone, but there are still species that can possibly be spared from the effects of anthropogenic climate change and other destructive human activities, such as tourism and fishing," said Professor Fabian Gottlieb Benjamin von Bellingshausen of the Institute of Climate Change Adaptation, via email.

"I would like to think that the extinction of the Adélie penguins will at the very least provide a wake-up call," von Bellingshausen said. "But considering how humans have reacted to similar calls to action over the past 50 or 60 years, I'm not holding my breath. With regard to endangered species here and around the world, humans have generally been a huge disappointment."

image: Samuel Blanc, Wikimedia Commons

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