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March of the Tourists

Polar Earth is thawing. Does it matter if the visiting hordes don't understand?

If not for the wind, it would be another hot day in Antarctica. But the 20 knots blasting around the shoulders of Penguin Island are stripping us of sweat and what feels like our clothes. I'm shivering hard, and working hard to keep up with Heather Lynch, 5 feet 4 inches of science dynamo, robin's-egg-blue rubber boots pistoning through knee-deep snow with manic determination. She turns 30 this July and is training for a 19-mile wilderness run in Vermont billed as the hardest for its distance anywhere.

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We're in the Antarctic Peninsula, that Sistine Chapel of the geologic world, with its godlike finger of mountains reaching across the Drake Passage toward South America's mountains of men. Training helps. We have only a couple of hours ashore to count an expected two or three thousand penguins, with a few cross-country miles to hike to and from the rookery across unknown terrain, orienteering via a hand-drawn map that might as well say here be dragons for all it's worth. Ordinarily, penguin rookeries aren't cryptic places. They advertise through a landscape of jittery, methlike overactivity, a soundscape of braying, buzzing, and honking, and a scentscape reeking of guano and treacly dead things.

Except we can't find this one, and resort to sniffing over sea cliffs 150 feet high. Below, icebergs rear like Mormon temples from the battleship-gray waters of the Bransfield Strait. A few weeks back, a smaller version of one of these white behemoths sank the venerable Antarctic tour ship the Explorer in view from here, stranding 154 passengers and crew in lifeboats for four hours. The first ship to the rescue was the National Geographic Endeavour—Lynch's and my ride, anchored offshore now.

We power hike until the snowfields give way to desolate, burnt slopes of ejected volcanic boulders. The island has the feel of a tensed muscle overdue for another tectonic release. The last eruption here was estimated by the dating of lichens as 1905—the same year French polar explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot began to amass 32-plus volumes of observations on the Antarctic Peninsula, a treasure chest of data that Lynch and her colleagues still mine today.

In the lee of the island's summit we finally spy a scattering of a few hundred Adélie and chinstrap penguins where we were expecting thousands. They're subdued, with nary an ecstatic display to be seen, that head-craning, chest-pumping, flipper-flapping performance complete with hee-hawing calls. The Adélies are clustered on empty nests, with only 11 chicks among them. A pitiful tally for an entire year's breeding effort.

Hiking back into radio range, we hear from Ron Naveen, counting southern giant petrel nests on the other side of the island. It's terrible here, he reports, just awful. At first I picture him befouled by stomach-oil spit from the bellies of the huge albatrosslike birds the whalers called stinkers. But his concern is that he's found only 75 nests in a colony that once housed more than 600. Worse, it appears all the petrels are sitting on eggs, far too late in the season for the chicks to survive. The whole island is a bust.

Breeding success in Antarctica is highly variable. Local events—rain, heat, snowfall—can crash an entire season. In East Antarctica, southern giant petrels have been found dead on their nests, a single egg nestled in the brood patch, the birds having succumbed to enormous, burying snows. Yet what's happening now is indicative of a larger meteorological reality. The western Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster than any place on Earth. Wintertime temperatures have risen a staggering 9 degrees Fahrenheit in 50 years. What was once a cold, dry place has become a warm, wet place. The wildlife is reeling from the chaos, some finding opportunity, others catastrophe. On Penguin Island, Adélie populations have plummeted 75 percent since 1980.

Returning across the high flanks of the island, Lynch and I pass a pair of chinstraps—chinnies, as they're affectionately known—waddling toward the distant colony, wings cranked open for balance, lurching from one webbed foot to the other, climbing hard. It's an impressive feat of penguin mountaineering. The pair rests, facing each other, as if conferring on their own adventurous conundrum. We chuckle, though we're puzzled as to why they don't just swim to their front doorstep on the far side of the island.

Of course, there's no telling why penguins make one decision versus another, why they elect a long and difficult path when an easier way is obvious. Any more than we can figure the bizarrely perilous choices of our own kind.

polar peril

It's not just penguins and other Antarctic animals that are in trouble. A sampling of Arctic species reeling from climate change. —J.W.

Lemming Lemming
Reports of mass suicide are erroneous, but some species of these rodents are in danger of extinction from climate change and habitat loss. Many Arctic land species—from flowering plants to insects to birds—are now forced to cope with springtime arriving 30 days earlier than 10 years ago.

Arctic Fox Arctic Fox
A seminal study of Arctic fox dna upends the presumption that animals are able to chase after their range when it dwindles or moves. In fact, Arctic foxes in Europe failed to track northward with the ice melt at the end of the last ice age, dooming their genetics to oblivion. Siberian foxes likely moved east and now largely depend on lemmings for food.

Polar Bear Polar Bear
Among the most ice dependent of all marine mammals. A 23-year study recently found that Hudson Bay polar bears have declined—along with the ice—more than 20 percent in 20 years. Desperate for food, bears are drowning and turning to cannibalism. In 2006 the world's foremost conservation scientists rated the bears as "vulnerable," noting, "It seems unlikely that polar bears will be able to adapt to the current warming trend in the Arctic."

Walrus Walrus
To rest, walruses need to haul out on ice, yet they found so little in 2007 they were forced ashore in record numbers—40,000 on Russia's Arctic coast, where up to 4,000 died in stampedes. Experts worry that as walruses become more land based, they'll strip coastal waters of food, dooming themselves to starvation.

Ribbon Seal Ribbon Seal
A species that needs sea ice because they almost never come ashore. Their future is of such concern due to global warming that in 2007 the Center for Biological Diversity requested federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Narwhal Narwhal
The most specialized of all Arctic whales and dolphins, narwhals are believed to fast most of the summer and feed all winter on halibut living beneath the ice. A recent assessment found narwhals more sensitive to climate change than polar bears.

Hooded Seal Hooded Seal
Completely dependent on sea ice for whelping, molting, and mating. A small worldwide population and limited range make this species as vulnerable as polar bears.

Beluga Whale Beluga Whale
Like narwhals, belugas are being infected by diseases such as brucellosis that are traveling north in warming waters.

Musk Ox Musk Ox
Four years ago, 20,000 starved in Canada, victims of a likely climate-change-related, late-autumn rainfall that froze the ground solid and prevented the herd from feeding all winter.

In 1774, after enduring tempests, gales, and fogs, Captain James Cook came up hard against the Antarctic ice sheet and turned back. He never saw the land beyond, land he thought "doomed by nature to everlasting frigidness...whose horrible and savage aspect I have no words to describe." He predicted another explorer would, though "I shall not envy him the honour of the discovery but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefited by it."

It's still a hard sell, the notion that this frozen continent and its frozen-ocean partner to the north have much relevance to our temperate world. Naveen and Lynch are here to count dwindling numbers of penguins—because, Naveen says, doing so is like looking into a crystal ball and seeing our own future beset by climate change. They're censusing three species (Adélies, chinstraps, gentoos), plus two seabirds (blue-eyed shags, southern giant petrels), at 123 sites in a long-term research project known as the Antarctic Site Inventory. It's a daunting undertaking, facilitated in part by Lindblad Expeditions, which donates one cabin, two bunks, and all meals for two researchers aboard the Endeavour for the entirety of the Antarctic season—a contribution worth a minimum of $200,000 a year. Naveen and Lynch have no control of the ship's itinerary, but are grateful to piggyback on the travels of the tourists.

Ron Naveen's history as a Lindblad lecturer dates back a quarter century. He's also the founder and president of Oceanites (OH-shun-AYE-tees), the nonprofit funding organ for the Antarctic Site Inventory. Heather Lynch, who looks, in her own words, to be 17 years old, is a newcomer to the project, with two Antarctic seasons under her belt. She brings 21st-century science to the table, introducing überstatistics to often-incomplete datasets as a way to fast-forward to results.

I'm hitchhiking on their ride, sharing their tiny, two-bunk cabin, sleeping on a ledge below the porthole. My goal is to report on the International Polar Year, a 63-nation enterprise launched because the poles "are presently changing faster than any other regions of the Earth, with regional and global implications for societies, economies and ecosystems." Written between the lines of the mission statement is the understanding that the frozen poles are Earth's own doomsday vault, our last nest egg of vitals: freshwater, minerals, oil, oceanic currents, climate control, and who knows what else. Vaults we don't want to open.

Naveen, Lynch, and I join 110 passengers aboard the 294-foot Endeavour on their vacation of a lifetime. Fifty years ago there was no infrastructure for tourists in Antarctica. This year, 40,000 will visit aboard more than 58 vessels, with the number predicted to rise to more than 80,000 tourists by 2010. The only obstacles to visitation these days are financial—Lindblad's cheapest berths aboard the Endeavour cost $10,250, plus hefty airfares—though clearly it's worth it. After all, we're all here, tourists, explorers, researchers, writers, sharing similar concerns about a frozen world necessary for our well-being.

We all know how the febrile Arctic is melting toward an ice-free state—while the Antarctic, that mother lode of ice that as recently as 2001 was thought invulnerable in the 21st century, is leaking at the seams. We know that since 2000 atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased 35 percent faster than expected, despite the pledges of 180 nations to rein them in. We're aware that polar seas are defying the laws of expectation, warming, in places, a staggering 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1995, opening the door for nonnative plants and animals to cross the polar thresholds and claim new waters for themselves. We get that all this bodes poorly for penguins and humans alike.

Don't we?

After two days of warm, sunny weather, when I suggest we might expect a change to sleet or snow, one of the guests aboard the Endeavour snorts: Snow? Nobody told us to expect that. More than a few express surprise at snow on the frozen continent. Others, with the stunned look of people booked on the wrong tour, self-medicate at the bar, and don't seem to notice the weather at all. We share meals in the ship's glass-walled dining room, with its gliding panoramas of snow, ice, icebergs, sea, sky, whales, and seabirds, and I hear more than a few guests describe how they came to be here—struck by spontaneous wanderlust after viewing that paean to snow and fatherhood, March of the Penguins.

It's blizzarding the day we arrive at Petermann Island—Oceanites' Antarctic field station and home to three researchers collecting data on penguin breeding efforts. After a brief Zodiac ride, Naveen, Lynch, and I land ahead of the guests and are welcomed ashore by the resident scientists based there for the winter. The greetings are heartfelt and effusive and involve the bestowing of gifts of chocolate and booze and fashion magazines laden with perfume swatches. (There's no shower here.)

We trudge through oversized snowflakes butterflying through the air, past nesting gentoo penguins and their pink guano latrines, to the Arctic Oven, a 20-by-10-foot blimp of a yellow tent built for the cold extremes of the world. It's part kitchen, part science lab, anchored to the ground with a dozen 60-pound "deadmen" bags filled with rocks, now disappearing into the blizzard.

We undress in the sulfur light inside the vestibule, removing every square inch of our sodden, guano-splattered outer clothing before climbing through the tent's zippered hatch. Or, rather, Lynch and I do. Naveen doffs only jacket and boots and steps through with dripping hat and rain pants. Both he and Lynch are giddily happy to be back in their field home—Naveen too much so to be mindful, shuffling in his socks on the cold floor, reaching out to touch everything: the laptop, the satellite phone, the raunchy cards, inflatable flamingo, and weather-beaten maps hanging on the interior clothesline. He's running a monologue about penguins and punctuating his thoughts by tossing back peanut M&Ms pilfered from a bowl on the kitchen table.

Hey, Lynch reminds him, we're on a ship full of goodies. The Petermann gang hardly has any.

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