The warming of an entire planet has dire consequences for everyone. Symptoms begin to appear all across a planet, from an extension of the tropical belt to increasing ocean levels. But the areas most likely to be hit hardest are the frozen poles.
This is indeed the case for us here on Earth, and given my fantastical hope that there are more planets with people (whatever shape or size) elsewhere, probably for them too. (However, one must question, if there is life out there, is it as stupid as we are to have damaged its only home?)
Antarctica – the largest of our frozen continents and the object of much fascination – has indeed been suffering from a warming planet. Many people continue to demand more and more evidence of this, continually parrying off examples given by attributing the damage to some other cause; anything other than global warming.
So here we are, in a continual state of frustration and ignorance; those of us with the evidence frustrated that the ignorant won’t open their eyes.
This brings us to the Adélie penguins of Antarctica. If there is more proof needed, then these little guys and gals are the ones who are going to bring it to us, much to their distress. The mid-latitudes of the Antarctic Peninsula have long been their home. In fact a colony of 40,000 of the little penguins once lived there, upon the peninsula that forks its way up towards the southern tip of South America.
Bill Fraser, an ecologist with the Polar Oceans Research Group in Sheridan, Montana, has seen those same penguins population shrink by 80%. For those of us (like me) who can’t work that out in their head, here’s the figure: there are only 8,000 left on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Now before the critics start writing their emails, let me describe just how it is that these penguins are suffering from global warming. Or better yet, let’s hear from an expert. “That region has experienced the most rapid warming during winter on the planet,” said Fraser. “The mid-winter temperatures are now around 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit [6 degrees Celsius] higher than they were 50 years ago.”
But let us step on to another expert, one who deals with the peninsula directly, and not the inhabitants of. Doug Martinson is a physical oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, and has studied the Antarctic Peninsula directly. He believes that the increased level of warming in this area has to do with other factors.
Other factors, I hear you ask? Yes, other environmentally unfriendly global warming-specific factors.
Consider for a moment that you are a massive piece of ice. For those of us in Melbourne, Australia, at the moment that isn’t something we would mind doing (it’s getting hot here…). The sun above you is particularly warm, and there seems to be just a general ‘warm-ness’ that wasn’t there awhile ago. What’s worse though is that beneath you, the water is beginning to heat up as well.
That, is the other factor that Martinson believes is sending the Antarctic Peninsula in to a spirally death.
“The peninsula is undergoing warming that in the wintertime is almost 5.5 times the global average,” Martinson said. “There’s got to be some other source of heat that’s melting the glaciers and raising the air temperature, and the most obvious source is the ocean.”
Let’s just step in to science for a moment. We know that water has a much greater ability to carry heat than air does. As the air in the equatorial regions gets warmer, this air makes its way to the deep of the ocean. Deep ocean currents then ensure that this warmer water makes its way towards the South Pole, via the Antarctic circumpolar current—the “global mix master,” as Martinson calls it.
As this current bounces off the Peninsula, some of its warmer water gets sucked right up on to the continental shelf, mixes all the way through to the surface, and adds to the heat in the atmosphere above.
“The deep-ocean circulation is bringing water to our area of the Antarctic Peninsula that—just a little ways below the water’s surface—is four degrees Celsius [seven degrees Fahrenheit] warmer than freezing,” Martinson said. “It’s a freight train of hot coals that goes steaming by this frigid area.”
“The summer season with no sea ice is now 85 days longer than it used to be just since the ’80s,” he added. “It almost doubles the length of summer down there as far as sea ice goes.”
Lastly, and yes this article is coming to a close, the Adélie penguins are not all in for bad news. Bill Fraser has seen some populations of the penguins thrive, tripling in previous decades in southern parts of Antarctica. But Fraser admits that Antarctica could warm past the Adélie’s ideal temperature range, and that in itself is a surprise.
“Pound for pound, an Adélie penguin can deal with just about anything,” Fraser said. “To see them being affected so dramatically by human-induced climate change is particularly hard to bear.”
So whether or not you’re willing to accept global warming is still entirely up to you. But past this point denying that it is happening is nothing more than willful ignorance. This is the evidence from two fields of science that both point towards a warming planet.