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March of the Tourists

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

But this is The House That Ron Built, so he squirms good-naturedly and eats another handful anyway. It's the first season Naveen hasn't been resident for at least one of two annual five-week stints here, because, he says sadly, things get done faster when he stays home.

He's referring to fundraising, and home is Washington, DC, where he manages the business of collecting charitable contributions and writing science grants that sustain the efforts on Petermann Island, while facilitating 784 visits to 123 bird rookeries across Antarctica since 1994.

The research is daunting. Compounding the difficulties of getting boots on the ground in remote seabird rookeries is the fact that some sites are too big to count. Or too steep. Or too locked in by ice. Or too dangerous due to 70-knot winds on the day of the visit. Furthermore, counts are most useful during only two short windows each season: one at the peak of egg laying, the other at the peak of crèching (the time after hatching when penguin chicks congregate in downy flocks, leaving both parents free to hunt for food). The difference between the number of eggs laid and the number of chicks surviving to crèche is a reliable indicator of how well the species is doing from one year to the next.

The resident team on Petermann Island faces different challenges, including as many as three visiting ships a day, all requiring some aspect of a guided tour. Many days it's hard to get anything done, including the basics. There's no outhouse here, only a rock and the flushing sea, and, if you don't time it right, 100-plus witnesses.

One by one the Endeavour's passengers file up to the Arctic Oven, where the camp manager holds open the hatch to the vestibule so the passengers can peer into the inner workings of a field station. Some seem embarrassed by the zoolike presentation of scientists in their native habitat, and duck away. Others linger with queries, mostly about the living conditions. One woman asks an oft-repeated question, Who does the cooking? We take turns, says Lynch: One person cooks and cleans for a day, followed by two days off. The guest digests this, snow dumping behind her, penguins hee-hawing, wind rattling the guy wires, the fishy stench of guano permeating the air. Huh, she responds: Kind of like a summerhouse on Long Island.

Visitors aren't what they used to be, reports Naveen. The Antarctic aficionados still pilgrimage here, but they're outnumbered these days by doom tourists chasing down the disappearing world and the nouveau riche absentmindedly checking off the premier stop on their grand tour of Planet Earth.

You can't protect what you don't know, said Lars-Eric Lindblad upon first bringing tourists to Antarctica in 1969 (aboard the same Explorer that went to the bottom a few weeks ago). From his pioneering efforts, the notion of ecotourists as ambassadors was born. Nearly 40 years into the training program, the plebes aboard the Endeavour have a ways to go. One guest, when asked after a two-hour onboard lecture on seabird identification whether the bird overhead is a southern giant petrel or black-browed albatross, looks up, shrugs, and admits, I really don't care.

On a day so warm the southern giant petrels are riding thermals rising off icebergs, we sail into the Weddell Sea. The sun is sharp as knives. The air, antiseptically invisible. Islands 50 miles distant seem yards away. Up close, killer whales hunt the floes for sleeping crabeater seals, while cape petrels, those checkerboard flyers of the cold waters, surf the air curls streaming off the ship. I'm wearing flip-flops on deck.

We sail through canyons of ice, enormous tabular bergs colored in sea-glass shades of milk, crystal, turquoise, and cobalt green, shot through with bolts of electric blue. The bergs tower 80 or more feet above us, some the remnants of the 1,264-square-mile Larsen B ice shelf, which in 2002 catastrophically disintegrated at a speed then truly startling to science, but now almost commonplace as both poles and many high elevations summarily liquefy.

As recently as 2000, scientists predicted Arctic summer ice until 2100, whereas some research now suggests its demise by 2013. But even as the bad news from the Arctic mounted, the southernmost continent was considered too big, too remote, too frozen to react with every nuance of changing currents and warming winds. At 5.4 million square miles, it's bigger than Europe, the coldest, windiest, driest place and largest and highest desert on Earth. Much of Antarctica lies more than two miles above sea level; 90 percent of the world's ice and as much as 70 percent of its freshwater are locked in its frozen vault. The prospect of this global Sub-Zero melting anytime soon lies beyond the ken of human imagination, and climate models have long forecast a reassuring stability.

But the certainty of an unshakably frozen South Pole is cracking. The Antarctic Peninsula's thermal sprint is hammering 87 percent of its glaciers into retreat. This past February the Wilkins ice shelf—an area bigger than Connecticut—began to disintegrate, following the familiar script of the Larsen B. In a heartbeat, the northernmost fringe of Antarctica has become more temperate than polar: endowed with snow, but less of it sticking around long enough to become entombed in glaciers, existing glaciers dumping faster into a warming sea. God's finger is growing thin.

The Antarctic landmass is showing the strain too. In 2005, researchers found the first real evidence of massive melting over a multitude of regions previously considered immune, including far inland, at high latitudes, and at high elevations. Put together, these disparate melt zones add up to an area the size of California. Furthermore, whereas scientists were expecting a growth in Antarctica's coastal ice sheets from heavier snowfall, a 10-year study found much of them in mysterious, rapid decline. Losing the coastal ice opens the floodgates for glaciers to surge into the sea, not only raising sea levels but also adding freshwater to oceanic currents fueled by salinity levels, increasing the risks of resetting the currents—Earth's natural thermostat.

But it's a beautiful day aboard the Endeavour. Hatless guests stroll the decks, complementary red parkas flapping open, heads craned back to see the massive icebergs, oohing and aahing in their own ecstatic displays. The ship weaves between a fantastic assortment of bergs melted below the waterline and flipped, revealing the crazed hand of a submarine sculptor, complete with domes, pinnacles, wedges, and weird standing glassy blocks resembling Icehenges. Some icebergs are favored haul-outs for penguins, whose formidable ice-climbing skills allow them to porpoise out of the waves, stab the ice-axes of their bills into sheer walls, then peg with toenail crampons, hammering move after move until they've climbed 50 or more feet to ledges tattooed with sleeping penguins.

There's talk aboard the Endeavour of climate change, including from a vocal contingent of naysayers quoting mythical studies. One woman repeatedly cites a fictional cluster of 19,000 denialistas hunkered down in German institutes of higher learning, until someone asks her to prove it. There are also a surprising number of middle grounders leaking equal parts confusion and skepticism about "this global warming business." The two groups manage to exhibit all five stages of climate-change denial: There's nothing happening; we don't know why it's happening; climate change is natural; climate change is not bad; climate change can't be stopped. The true believers discover each other mostly through shared incredulous silence.

Yet all come together when we happen upon an ancient ice floe topped with a single sleeping emperor penguin. It's a juvenile that has just completed its inconceivable genesis in the dark of the Antarctic winter, perched atop its father's webbed feet, tucked into the brood pouch, enduring 100-knot winds and subzero temperatures. The young bird utters three soft braying calls as we approach, then stands. The motor drives on a hundred cameras whine. Everyone whispers to no one in particular, as all are joined by an invisible thread of respect woven into the collective consciousness by March of the Penguins. You can almost hear the Morgan Freeman narration hang in the air.

Directly ahead lies heavy pack ice, the dividing line between ships and penguins. We turn back, leaving the young bird to its solitude.

The pack ice in the Weddell Sea is the same obstacle that sank Ernest Shackleton's Endurance in 1915, and, like him, we set our sights on Paulet Island, where he hoped and failed to land his men. We can't quite get there either, though Captain Philipp Dieckmann noses the ship in a narrow channel cluttered with big bergs, bergy bits, growlers, and weather-pummeled sea ice, all idiosyncratically on the move with tide and wind, like dancers without a choreographer. Here and there we kiss ice, the ship shuddering at the impact and wailing in a Björklike voice, seductive and violent. Everyone who can be is clustered topside, watching the contest, when a German who speaks excellent English confesses how he and his compatriots have been confused by the constant references to "Adélie" this and "Adélie" that, wondering where in the world is this French woman everyone is talking about.

Naveen and Lynch badly want to get ashore on Paulet and count Adélie penguins and the Antarctic cormorants known as blue-eyed shags. But Matt Drennan, expedition leader and 20-year veteran of the Antarctic, with 80 expeditions under his belt, doesn't like the look of things. Too much ice. Too much tide. Wind coming up. He squints into the glare of memory—things can change too quickly here—and apologizes profusely. No one second-guesses his tough decision because no one wishes to repeat the travails of the 20 men of the Nordenskjöld Expedition who inadvertently overwintered here in 1903 after their ship sank in the Weddell ice. Their tiny stone hut, visible from the Endeavour, looks to be built from stacked headstones.

Paulet is only a mile across, yet its slopes, rising more than 1,100 feet, are so steep and its birds so densely packed that they've never been fully counted, only estimated. The last year conditions enabled an estimate was 1999, when Naveen managed a flyover in a British navy helicopter and calculated between 95,000 and 105,000 Adélie nests, for a total of perhaps 350,000 adults and chicks on the island.

The question of interest today is how many are present this year. Adélies, the most polar of the three penguin species nesting in the peninsula, seem to be suffering the most from climate whiplash, their numbers plummeting 80 percent in places. Exactly why remains a matter of conjecture, though many theories begin and end with krill. Adélies survive almost exclusively on krill, making forays more than 400 miles to and from their nests and dives up to 574 feet deep in pursuit of the shrimplike invertebrates.

But krill stocks aren't what they used to be. Despite the fact that wildlife has been protected on Antarctic lands since 1959, the Southern Ocean, which feeds most Antarctic life, is still considered fair game. Industrial-scale krill-fishing fleets arrived here in the 1970s, bent on transforming the keystone species of Antarctica into fish food and omega-3 supplements. In 2007, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources expanded the catch limit from 450,000 to 2.6 million metric tons in East Antarctica alone. This despite concerns that the stock is already in decline from climate change. Krill need pack ice for feeding, yet the pack in the peninsula has shrunk 80 percent in 30 years, forming later each winter and retreating earlier each summer.

The problems for penguins don't end with krill. Adélies need sea ice as a place to rest while foraging, a kind of polar recovery room, now shrinking. Moreover, the warming climate is producing deep snows and flooding rains that smother or drown their eggs and chicks—changes that may also be fueling outbreaks of ticks severe enough to force some penguins to abandon their eggs and chicks and seek relief in the sea. Now melting glaciers are releasing time bombs of ddt and likely other pollutants once safely frozen in the ice.

In November 2007 researchers at Palmer Station in the Antarctic Peninsula recorded the first extinction of an Adélie colony, which may historically have housed as many as 30,000 birds. "The evidence could no longer be denied," the team wrote, "and it was formally transcribed into our field notebooks and [Adélie] pairs had arrived to breed on Litchfield Island...the first recorded extinction of an entire colony in the 34-year history of this study."

At first glance, the massive penguin rookery at Brown Bluff looks to be strewn with the carcasses of penguin chicks. But they're not dead, only prostrate with heat—fat, absurdly fuzzy, lying prone on rotund krill-filled bellies, wings outstretched, webbed feet raised in the air behind them, shedding heat through the only unfeathered parts of their bodies. The Adélie chicks hatched earlier than the gentoos on the island, and some are near fledging now, molting their down feathers like penguins emerging from gorilla suits. Most are joining crèches and partaking in the comical affairs known as feeding chases: a parade of chicks besieging any parent returning from the sea, the youngsters chattering loudly of their hunger. The returning parents, bloated with krill, lurch as fast and far away as they can, hoping to winnow their own chicks from the mob. Some feeding chases persist a thousand feet down the beach, a long way for birds with no ankles, says Naveen.

We arrive prepared to count, but are waylaid by the impossibly calm day, the mirrorlike bay with ripples of sinuous leopard seals, the grounded icebergs on shore, and the literally hundreds of adult penguins crowding the waterline. They're restless and hot and hungry. They're also afraid of the leopard seals. Entering the water requires a flock to reach consensus. Before that, they reach many false consensuses, a few birds toppling headfirst into the sea only to U-turn and torpedo out again. This day, as every day, a few will not return with food but instead become food for leopard seals.

We climb a precipitous hill worn to dirt and rock from countless generations of penguin feet. Birds come and go, effortlessly hopping past us on the uphill. Near the pinnacle, scrambling atop a boulder, Heather Lynch snaps photos of the colony in all directions and notes the gps coordinates. There are too many birds to count, except on a digitized image on a computer screen. Next year, conditions permitting, an Oceanites team will return to this same boulder and count again. Such is the way databases in the Antarctic grow, as slowly as lichens.

To compensate for the difficulties inherent in polar work, Naveen hooked up with Bill Fagan at the University of Maryland. Fagan's lab, where Lynch is a postdoc, is a scientific front line combining advanced mathematical theory and off-the-map fieldwork to explore questions critical to life on Earth—including those shaping life naturally (community ecology), and those that save life from ourselves (conservation biology).

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