Ecological Responses to Climate Change on the Antarctic Peninsula
The peninsula is an icy world that's warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, threatening a rich but delicate biological community
The crack of an iceberg splitting away from the Marr glacier reverberates through the halls of the Bio Lab at Palmer Station, on the western shore of the Antarctic Peninsula. That sound has grown increasingly familiar to the three of us. (We've spent a collective total of 36 seasons at Palmer.) The retreat of the Marr glacier—and even more dramatic losses of ice elsewhere on the peninsula—signals ongoing environmental change. The average midwinter temperature here has increased by 6 degrees Celsius since 1950; this is the highest rate of warming anywhere on the planet, five times the global average.
The isolated biological community of the peninsula and its coastal waters evolved in a polar climate that remained relatively stable for many millennia. Now, as the climate shifts, we are trying to document and understand how the ecosystem responds. Our studies focus on three segments of the community. Ducklow works with marine plankton, the small organisms that swim or drift near the sea surface. McClintock's realm is the benthos, the community of bottom-dwelling plants and invertebrate animals. And Fraser studies the penguins and other seabirds that dwell at the triple interface of land, air and sea.