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Effects Of Global Warming On Display In Antarctica


And let's visit the bottom of the earth, Antarctica. It's late summer there, and the high season for science is drawing to a close. We had a conversation about climate change earlier this morning with a researcher there, James McClintock. He's a marine biologist with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and he was at Palmer Station, a research center operated by the National Science Foundation. McClintock described the first time he saw a chunk of ice break off from the nearby glacier.

JAMES MCCLINTOCK: It was quite exciting, 15 years ago, to see a calving, a big chunk of ice, hit the water up in the bay next to the station. The entire station staff would leap up and run down the halls and throw open the doors and look out the windows and watch this big event as the waves came down the bay. And when I arrived here several weeks ago, I was struck immediately by the changes in the glacier and the fact that it was lopping off these huge pieces of ice, instead of once a week, several times a day. So dramatic changes just in front of my eyes over this 15-year period.

GREENE: And what does that tell us?

MCCLINTOCK: Well, I think it speaks very boldly to the impacts of climate change. We're seeing the strongest effects of climate change here in polar environments not only with the (unintelligible) of the ice but the organisms that live here along the coast. The marine life is also responding very dramatically.

GREENE: And as I understand it, there's been a real serious drop in the Adelie penguin population.

MCCLINTOCK: Yeah. The Adelie penguin, 40 years ago, numbered 15,000 breeding pairs. And Bill Fraser, a penguin biologist, has been following these populations now until the present day. And where there were 15,000 breeding pairs of Adelies, there's now about 1,800 left, so almost a 90 percent decrease in the population. And what's happening, Bill believes, is as the air is warming, we're having these unseasonable snowstorms.

So imagine the Adelie penguins come in, lay their eggs. And along comes this unseasonable storm, covers the whole colony in a thick layer of snow. And when that snow melts, sadly, the embryos and the eggs are drowned. So you can lose an entire generation of penguins in one of these unseasonable storms.

GREENE: Can you just give me an image of these penguins you're talking about?

MCCLINTOCK: Oh, these are the ones that look like Charlie Chaplin - little black tuxedoes, they're about 2-feet-tall, very inquisitive. I lead a climate change cruise to Antarctica every year, and these penguins just come trotting right up to the tourists and look at them. And the other kit is you get off the trail and let the little train of Adelies go by and then you get back on the trail.

GREENE: I suppose that's just one image of a much larger problem that you're confronting as a scientist.

MCCLINTOCK: That's correct, yeah. It's rather a poignant one, I believe.

GREENE: How serious is this? I mean when you think about what you're seeing there and its implications for the world, what do you think about?

MCCLINTOCK: Well, here in Antarctica, you see it with your own eyes. You know, we're seeing changes in whole ecologies, whole communities down here that probably wouldn't be unusual over millennia. But here, they're happening over a few decades. I really believe this is sort of the bellwether, if you will, of climate change environments on our planet. And we need to take heed of that. We're seeing changes at home. They're much more dramatic here, and they're going to get more dramatic where we live as well.

GREENE: All right, James McClintock is a marine biologist with the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He's - was talking to us from Palmer Station, just off the Antarctic Peninsula. And he's also the author of "Lost Antarctica: Adventures In A Disappearing Land."

Professor, thanks so much.

MCCLINTOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MR. COOPER'S "TEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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