Pecking Orders

This review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 8 February 2008

Meredith Hooper, The Ferocious Summer: Palmer’s Penguins and the Warming of Antarctica, 300pp. Profile Books, £20.00

Long before Ian McEwan got into trouble for pocketing those pebbles on Chesil Beach, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally helped himself to a trophy biscuit from Captain Scott’s near-derelict hut at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Twenty-five years later, prompted by his conscience (rather than — in McEwan’s case — the threat of a fine from Weymouth council) Keneally posted his souvenir to the New Zealand headquarters of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, asking them to return it to the Huntley & Palmer ration tin from which it had been filched during the course of a visit arranged by the American Ambassador to Canberra. Keneally’s crime, apparently, was not all that unusual — dozens of items taken from the huts have begun to be returned in recent years —  but it nonetheless acts as a salient reminder of the extent to which attitudes to conservation have changed, as well as of how well established Antarctica has become as a fixture on the cultural itinerary. Keneally first went there in the late 1960s, when it was relatively unusual for a non-scientist to visit, but since then a generation of writers and artists have made their way to the frozen continent, either as tourists on one of the iron-hulled cruise ships which ply their way through the Southern Ocean, or as beneficiaries of the much sought-after research grants which fund non-scientific work in Antarctica.

The historian Meredith Hooper, a serially successful funding applicant, has made numerous such research trips over the past fifteen years, writing in residence on a variety of vessels, including “a month with plate tectonic scientists” on an American icebreaker, as well as spending a summer onshore with scientists and support staff at Palmer Station, the American research base near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. This book is an account of Hooper’s time at Palmer during the “ferocious summer” of 2001-02, when the scale and rapidity of Antarctic warming was brought home to the world by the sudden collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf, a 720-billion-tonne apron of ice so vast and white that its fragmentation was clearly visible from space. No-one had predicted such a sudden loss, and Hooper’s sobering first hand account of the pace of the Peninsula’s temperature rise forms the core of this well-wrought and timely book. Over the past 50 years, she notes, the region has experienced a mean rate of warming some ten times greater than the global average, with the most dramatic spikes occurring in midwinter. Since 1951, average July temperatures on the west Antarctic Peninsula have risen by an astonishing 6.3°C, making it the most rapidly warming spot on the planet.

The impact of this winter warming on the fortunes of Antarctic wildlife has now become worryingly apparent. An overall decrease in sea ice cover has caused a steep decline in krill populations (krill feed on the algae which form on the underside of ice), which in turn affects the distribution of krill-dependent species such as baleen whales and penguins. It is the tiny Adélie penguin that has come off worst, since it feeds almost exclusively on krill, and relies on winter pack ice for survival. Adélie numbers have been in decline over the past twenty years or so, but it was only during the “ferocious summer” that Antarctic biologists began to think they might be witnessing the onset of an extinction. “In my mind at least, 01-02 is starting to look like Adélie hell”, as Palmer’s lead biologist Bill Fraser is quoted as saying, and Hooper, who had voyaged to Antarctica in search of something she was not yet sure of, realised very quickly that the visible consequences of rapid warming “took the story I’d come to write and shoved it into the eye of climate change.” Hooper, who has no scientific training — “I’m an outsider to the way scientists think and work. Like most of us” — began to tag along on Fraser’s Adélie-monitoring expeditions, seeing the evidence of abandoned nest-sites for herself, and learning how to make wary adults disgorge the reeking contents of their stomachs so that changes in their diet could be tracked. Her descriptions of these fieldwork trips are wonderfully observed, but even better are her deadpan accounts of life on the station itself.

Despite the romantic associations of doing frontline science in Antarctica, most of the scientists and staff remain career academics, with all the jealousies and resentments of academic life never far from their waking thoughts. “Scientists’ talk is about other scientists”, Hooper observes: “funding, promotion, reputations, positions on programmes, inclusion and exclusion, priority and protection of ideas, how data are accessed and used. Ambition and bruised egos, vulnerability and inadequacy.” Biologists seem particularly conscious of their lower funding status compared with the likes of geologists and oceanographers. Fraser nurses a twenty-year-old slight from his time on a research ship in the Weddell Sea: “an announcement came over the ship’s systems, ‘will all scientists, and’ — pause — ‘biologists, come to the bridge’”, while a comment from a journal editor who had rejected one of his research papers: “the day that a seabird biologist can tell us something about climate warming is the day we are all in trouble”, clearly still preys on his mind.

Though an outsider to all this disciplinary jockeying, Hooper gets caught up in the status game herself, and when a tourist ship berths at the station jetty, suddenly she’s an insider, too, and is happy to condescend to the temporary intruders; though when the tourists depart on their “vast luxury vessel”, her place on the bottom rung is restored, outsider status reinforced by her use of an Apple iBook, the only non-PC on the station, and yet another object of Dr Fraser’s angst (“Bill, it turns out, has an unrelenting hatred of Macs. . .”) All this Antarctic cabin-fever stems from boredom as much as anything else. Most observational fieldwork involves long periods of sitting and waiting, as well as an awful lot of counting and recounting. Ever since the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, science has been the official justification for a large international presence on the continent, with the requirement for the signatory nations to be visibly engaged in something scientific giving rise to vast amounts of weather data, “met obs”, as they are known, being the easiest and cheapest form of everyday science. No training is required, and reams of publishable results are guaranteed. Yet it was this routine data that began to reveal the rapid warming of the west Antarctic Peninsula, and by the late 1990s, as climate science began to take centre stage, Antarctic scientists found their work elevated from an obscure political obligation to one of the keys to understanding global change. What emerges from Hooper’s account of her summer with the scientists is the centrality of their data to the climate change story, those hours spent counting regurgitated krill building up into a wider picture of planetary emergency. “Our planet is irrefutably warming. No doubts, no buts”, as Hooper concludes, although the real question now is the pace of that warming, and our capacity to respond to it in time.

Richard Hamblyn

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