Climate change is unraveling this Antarctic ecosystem

Nov 02, 2018, 05:00 PM

He was born on a sailboat in Leith Harbour, an abandoned whaling station on South Georgia island. His father, a French adventurer, had met his mother, an Australian zoologist, on a jetty in Tasmania while sailing his boat around the world. The couple started a family in the South Atlantic. For years they traversed the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, surveying wildlife in uncharted bays—seals, flowering plants, seabirds—with three boys in tow. Dion was the first.

The Antarctic Peninsula is an 800-mile string of mountains and volcanoes that juts north from the White Continent like the tail on a horseshoe crab. It was Poncet’s playground. Young Dion and his brothers read, drew, and played with Legos—but also chased penguins, lifted chocolate from derelict research stations, and sledded down hills that might never have seen a human footprint. Other kids face schoolyard bullies; Dion was tormented by dive-bombing skuas, which whacked his head hard enough to make him cry. Other kids star in wobbly home movies; the Poncet boys were featured in a 1990 National Geographic film about growing up in the Antarctic. Sometimes, during breaks from homeschooling, Dion’s mom had him count penguins. “It got pretty boring pretty quickly,” he says.

On a frigid evening nearly 30 years later, Poncet and I stood in the wheelhouse of his 87-foot boat, the Hans Hansson, scanning the ice for Adélie penguins. At 39, Poncet is blond, block-jawed, and quiet, with enormous hands. He has spent much of his adult life ferrying scientists and other visitors in charter boats through the waters around South Georgia and Antarctica from his base in the Falklands. Along with a team of photographers led by Paul Nicklen, I had joined him for a voyage along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. We wanted to see how things were changing in a region he’d known his whole life.

Dion Poncet was born on a sailboat in Antarctica—and now his home is disappearing right in front of his eyes. Here at the bottom of the world, a place all but free of human settlement, humanity is scrambling one of the ocean’s richest wildernesses. Fossil-fuel burning thousands of miles away is heating up the western peninsula faster than almost anywhere else. (Only the Arctic compares.) The warming is yanking apart the gears of a complex ecological machine, changing what animals eat, where they rest, how they raise their young, even how they interact. At the same time, the shrimplike krill upon which almost all animals here depend for food are being swept up by trawlers from distant nations. They’re being processed into dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals, and fed to salmon in Norwegian fjords and to tropical fish in aquariums.

So much here is changing so fast that scientists can’t predict where it’s all headed. “Something dramatic is under way,” says Heather Lynch, a penguin biologist at Stony Brook University. “It should bother us that we don’t really know what’s going on.”

What we can see is troubling enough. On the western peninsula, Adélie penguin populations have collapsed, some by 90 percent or more. Records of great hordes of the birds in one bay date back to 1904; today in that spot “there are only about six nests left,” Poncet says. That day in the wheelhouse, when Poncet and I spotted our first massive colony, we had left the west for the peninsula’s northeast tip.

On tiny Paulet Island, thousands of penguins were perched in rows up a rocky slope, evenly spaced, like an audience at an opera house. We could see some wandering the remains of an old stone hut built in 1903 by shipwrecked Swedish explorers, who survived a long Antarctic winter by eating penguins. On an iceberg off our starboard beam, a noisy cluster of penguins slipped and knocked about like wobbly bowling pins. When I saw one glissade down polished ice, its flippers pulled back in a skier’s tuck, then tumble into a trio of fellow birds, I laughed out loud. Poncet just nodded.

Antarctica is not all...