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CONVERGE, Palmer Station, Antarctica
The Antarctic Peninsula is one of fastest warming places on Earth. Around Palmer Station, the average winter temperature has risen by more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years—six times greater than the global average. As a consequence, ice cover has declined by three months. Bill and Donna Fraser have been studying the changing distribution of seabirds—penguins in particular—to understand their response to these rapid environmental changes.
Of the 17 penguin species, only two are classified as ‘sea ice obligates’: Adélies and emperors. With the steady retreat of sea ice near their colonies, cold-loving Adélies have abandoned their breeding grounds in favor of icier locations to the south. Their larger cousins, the gentoos, have found this new climate favorable, and are moving in to former Adélie territory. The first gentoos began nesting at Biscoe Point in 1993, when 14 nests were counted. By 2015, Biscoe’s gentoo population was estimated at over 3,600 nests. If this trend continues, Adélies breeding on the Antarctic Peninsula face an uncertain future. One of the goals of the CONVERGE project (coseenow.net/converge) was to understand how penguins find high-enough concentrations of krill to fill their chicks’ bellies. Using a combination of tracker tags placed on penguins’ backs and free-swimming robotic gliders, researchers have an even greater understanding of how penguins eke out a living in this harsh environment.
I spent a month with the research team at the United States Antarctic Program’s Palmer Station. Every day, I photographed scientists as they launched gliders, tagged penguins, and biopsied humpback whales. In the evenings, I crafted photo essays with science writer Hugh Powell and uploaded them to our educational website. Using the website, we communicated the research—in real time—to elementary and middle school children.