Few places on earth are more breathtaking—or more ice-bound—than the Antarctic Peninsula, the 900-mile finger of land that juts toward the tip of South America. But the peninsula is warming rapidly, with winter temperatures soaring 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the past six decades, roughly 90 percent of glaciers in retreat, and sea ice blanketing the waters off the peninsula’s west coast three months less each year. In the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula, rising temperatures have had a profound impact on sea ice-dependent Adélie penguins, the classic, tuxedoed penguin that breeds exclusively in Antarctica. Over the past 35 years, the number of Adélies in the vicinity of the U.S.’s Palmer Station has plummeted from more than 30,000 breeding pairs to 5,600 today. For polar scientists such as Bill Fraser, who has studied Adélies at Palmer Station since 1974, global warming is not an abstraction. He confronts it everywhere he looks—in the receding glaciers, and in the swiftly disappearing populations of Adélie penguins (pictured here in one of the colonies Fraser studies) that have been his life’s work.
FEN MONTAIGNE is a journalist, author and senior editor of the Web magazine, Yale Environment 360. While researching an upcoming book on the warming of the Antarctic Peninsula, he spent five months working on Bill Fraser’s field team.