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Antarctic penguins have existed for 60 million years. Can they survive climate change?

Ron Naveen used to be a lawyer for the EPA, but he left government in the 1980s to start Oceanites, a nonprofit that tracks the health of penguins that breed on the Antarctic Peninsula. Now, that 800-mile stretch of land is warming faster than almost anywhere else in the world, and the changing climate is affecting the "glorious creatures" Naveen studies. William Brangham reports from Antarctica.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight, we have the first in a series about the remarkable continent of Antarctica.

    William Brangham and producers Mike Fritz and Emily Carpeaux spent two weeks there. And for the rest of April, they will be reporting on climate change, tourism, and the history of the vast ice-covered continent at the bottom of the world.

    But they begin with a story about a man dedicated to studying the penguins who live on the Antarctic peninsula, and how they're adapting to a warming environment.

    It's part of our weekly series on the Leading Edge of science.

  • Ron Naveen:

    Hi, buddy.

  • William Brangham:

    For more than 35 years, Ron Naveen has been coming every year to Antarctica to do something he still can't believe he gets paid for: research and count penguins.

  • Ron Naveen:

    I can't believe it. I have the best job on the planet.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    Is that right?

  • Ron Naveen:

    Well, I'm a penguin counter, for God's sake. Can't beat that, can you?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    No, I don't think you can.

    Naveen is a former lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency, but he left government work back in the 1980s to start Oceanites, a nonprofit that tracks the health of three penguin species that breed on the Antarctic Peninsula.

    It's home to millions of these charming, occasionally awkward, flightless birds.

  • Ron Naveen:

    They're really funny. They're like little human beings. And they don't have knees, so they're waddling around all the time. They look kind of silly and stupid and late for dinner, and all that stuff.

    But they're just cute as hell, and I love spending time watching their behaviors.

  • William Brangham:

    The Antarctic Peninsula is the 800-mile-long stretch of land that branches off from the northwest corner of the continent. This region has been warming faster than almost anywhere else in the world.

    And Naveen says that warming is having a dramatic impact on penguins.

  • Ron Naveen:

    Because I have been coming here for so long, I have seen these changes. I have seen the penguin populations of certain colonies thin out pretty dramatically.

    One colony that we studied at Deception Island has gone from an estimated 90,000 breeding pairs to 50 or fewer.

  • William Brangham:

    Wow.

  • Ron Naveen:

    Fifty thousand or fewer.

  • William Brangham:

    Ninety thousand down to 50?

  • Ron Naveen:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    That's a huge drop-off.

  • Ron Naveen:

    Right. But these penguins can teach us something about life on the planet.

  • William Brangham:

    We first met Naveen and his colleague, seabird biologist Grant Humphries, in the southern Argentinean city of Ushuaia. They were preparing for their annual trip south.

    There, they met with Dr. Heather Lynch, an evolutionary biologist from Stony Brook University, who was just returning from a similar expedition. She and Naveen have long partnered in this penguin research.

  • Dr. Heather Lynch:

    Some species are going to be major climate change winners, and there are going to be others species that are no longer able to thrive on the Antarctic Peninsula.

    And the changes that we have seen have been so rapid, that it's really important that we're down here every year to monitor them.

  • William Brangham:

    The research teams hitch rides on the various tourist ships willing to give them a lift to the bottom of the world.

    And for more than two weeks, we followed Naveen and Humphries on this remarkable continent, as they trudged through snow, hiked up rocky peaks, and went into areas few humans are allowed to see.

    The three different species they have been tracking here are Adelies, with the distinct white circle round their eyes, chinstraps, named for that thin marking across their faces, and gentoos, with the orange beaks.

  • Grant Humphries:

    Antarctic penguins are just unbelievable animals. They have been around for 60 million years.

  • William Brangham:

    Grant Humphries says these birds have long survived and thrived in some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet.

  • Grant Humphries:

    They look like rugby balls, you know?

    (LAUGHTER)

    They just don't look like they're made for anything, and here we are on top of this hill here. They have come up from the water and hiked up through deep snow, up over the rocks and all that to get up here. And it's not like they have hands. I mean, it is spectacular how hardy these animals are.

  • William Brangham:

    The sound that we hear them making, when they put their head up, and make that cry, what are they doing there?

  • Ron Naveen:

    They're displaying one to another, hee-haw, hee-haw, the donkey call of the penguin.

  • William Brangham:

    But are they communicating something with that?

  • Ron Naveen:

    This is my nest. You're my mate. This is my territory.

  • William Brangham:

    In the summer, when it's a balmy 20 to 30 degrees out, the birds seek out some clear ground, where they build these piles of rocks for nests.

    After their chicks hatch, the penguins head back to sea for the winter. Penguins are generally monogamous. Roughly 80 to 90 percent stick together for life. That doesn't mean, though, that when they come back to nest each summer, it's all marital bliss.

  • Ron Naveen:

    The male will come back, claim his rocks, and start displaying. And, hopefully…

  • William Brangham:

    That's the come hither, ladies, sound?

  • Ron Naveen:

    Come back to me, my lady from last year. And she hopefully will show up within 10 or 14 days. And, if she doesn't, he's going to take and get it on with whatever available female comes by.

    I mean, he's ready to go. And, of course, you see these fights, which are presumably between the two females when wife number one shows up late, finds somebody else in the house, and they have a battle royal.

  • William Brangham:

    Because she wants to be back with her mate from before?

  • Ron Naveen:

    Well, she doesn't understand who this other bird is that is sitting in the nest, and he's got a lot of explaining to do.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    Life here for the birds has never been easy. There are predators everywhere, from the sea, like this leopard seal, and from the sky, like these skuas flying overhead, constantly raiding penguin nests.

    But now they're facing a host of new threats. Krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures which are the penguins' main food source, are declining. They're being heavily fished to supply the booming fish-supplement industry, and everything down here eats krill, including the resurgent population of whales.

    But climate change is also believed to be harming them. That's forcing penguins to dive deeper and travel further in hopes of finding food. The warming on the peninsula is also causing another, seemingly contradictory effect, more snowfall, which makes it harder for the birds to breed.

    That seems counterintuitive, that a warming environment brings more cold snow.

  • Grant Humphries:

    Yes.

    The interaction between that warmer air and the cold sea surface temperature means that you're actually getting sort of more evaporation. You're getting rain. You're getting snow, things that wouldn't normally happen on the peninsula over the course of a whole season.

    And that heavy snowfall prevents these birds from being able to breed, because it packs down on top of them. The nests fail.

  • William Brangham:

    It's all led to a rapid decline for the birds on the peninsula. Adelie populations have dropped by nearly 75 percent since 1990. Chinstraps have in some locations dropped by half.

  • Grant Humphries:

    We're quite concerned about Adelies and chinstraps. We're seeing colonies that are getting close to blinking out, and it could very well be likely that, in our lifetime, we will see Adelie and chinstrap penguin completely disappear from the Antarctic Peninsula.

  • William Brangham:

    But, remarkably, the gentoos are actually thriving. Their numbers have grown six-fold over the same period.

    Researchers believe it's because they have adapted and are now eating more fish, instead of krill. And, as the breeding season gets harder, they're re-laying their eggs a second time.

  • Dr. Heather Lynch:

    There's a real lesson for us, that, as people, as communities, as cities, we're all going to have to figure out what's going to work in the future. And it may look very different than what's worked in the past.

  • Ron Naveen:

    Penguins are us, you might say. They breathe the same air. They have to have food, a good home, a good environment. If one of those falls out of synch, it's troubling.

    So, my question, you might say, in a very general, euphemistic way, are we going to be gentoos in the future, or are we going to have a sinking population, like some of the chinstrap and Adelie populations?

  • William Brangham:

    Meaning, are we going to figure out either how to stop this warming or how to adapt to it?

  • Ron Naveen:

    I don't know if we're going to be able to stop it. What I have been focusing a lot upon is whether we're going to be able to adapt.

  • William Brangham:

    At 73, Ron Naveen is also learning to adapt. New technologies like drones and satellites are now used to count penguin colonies from above.

    But he says old-fashioned manual counters like him will always be needed to verify what's happening on the ground. And even after all these years, he admits that saying goodbye to this magical place is never easy.

  • Ron Naveen:

    I get very wistful and teary-eyed, to be honest. It's my last day in the Antarctic for this season. I do want to come back. I'm intending to come back. I have been doing this forever.

    I want — I'm not ready to hang up the penguin clicker. But I will have a few moments later this afternoon with my favorite guys, sitting down there communing with them. And I will go back to the ship and have a big fat smile on my face. I'm the luckiest guy on the planet.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Antarctica.

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