Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Meredith Hooper - The Ferocious Summer: Palmer's Penguins and the Warming of Antarctica

Just how does a changing climate impact on flora and fauna? Can we learn anything about global impacts by looking at localised effects of climate change?

Meredith Hooper happened to be at the right place at the right time, to try and answer these questions. She travelled to the Palmer station in Antarctica to research a book, and arrived for the "Ferocious Summer" of 2001 / 2002. Palmer is a research station and one of its key areas of research is the ongoing study of the local penguin populations. The Adélie penguins who nest in huge colonies around the station. Or rather they did. During her time there Cooper was witness to the effective collapse of the local penguin population. A simplistic explanation would be that the warming Antarctic, evidenced by the melting ice, snow and glaciers that the author describes, was destroying the habitat of the Adélies, leading to their deaths.

But Cooper paints a more complex picture. The warming water should in fact lead to an increase in the Adélies' favourite food - Krill. And though this was observed, the populations were falling. Fewer birds were having fewer chicks, and fewer of these were surviving. Some of this was to do with more predators, some because there was more snow (one of the quirks of a warming Antarctic is initially more snow in some areas), and in part because of the loss of their "haul out platform" - the sea ice. As Cooper points out, "A warming peninsula was forcing a mismatch between the resources Adélies need and their ability to access them."

Cooper's point is that there is no simple cause and effect - a changing climate doesn't have a simple effect. Some changes might actually increase the numbers of particular plants or animals, or a change in the places they live in. But climate change does have a major impact and the general trend will be towards decreasing biodiversity.

This is perhaps not news, but by focusing on a particular aspect of the world, Cooper brings home how quickly a changing climate can impact on the world, even in a remarkably localised way.

Sadly Cooper's style leaves a lot to be desired. In places, some of the paragraphs are almost incomprehensible. I also found her reporting of people's speech difficult - rather than it being verbatim, often it is short disjointed sentences, making it hard to follow.

In part this is a diary and Cooper details the life and work of the station. Fascinating stuff, particularly if you are interested in the day-to-day experience of scientists and their support staff. I was struck by how often the scientists bemoaned a lack of equipment, which they were denied for cost reasons. Then the prices would turn out to be a few tens of thousands of dollars. A pittance when compared to the expenditure on, say, the Afghanistan war. But money that could and should be used to increasingly understand one of the greatest threats to our own species.

While this might not be the first place to start if you want to read up on climate change, it is certainly a useful read for those who want to look at the subject in greater detail.

Related Reviews

Lopez - Arctic Dreams
Flannery - An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples
Monthly Review - Ecology, Moment of Truth

1 comment:

Jeane said...

I've been curious about this book; thanks for the review- you've given me lots of details to think about before I pick it up.