Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ferocious Summer - A Review

The Ferocious Summer: Palmer’s penguins and the warming of Antarctica.
By Meredith Hooper
320 pages. Profile Books.

As the topic of global warming has become hotly debated amongst politicians and policymakers, the science has often been overshadowed by political rhetoric. Unfortunately, this emphasis on emissions and extreme weather obscures the small but significant changes in the natural world that scientists have observed for decades. Meredith Hooper’s recent book, The Ferocious Summer: Palmer’s penguins and the warming of Antarctica, provides a welcome antidote to the contentious debate by focusing on the scientific endeavors at one small Antarctic research station over the course of an Antarctic summer. Ferocious Summer deftly employs the tribulations of Adelie penguins as a metaphor for the evident but uncertain impact of climate change.

To write the book, Hooper, on a grant from the National Science Foundation of the United States, followed prominent penguin researcher Dr. Bill Fraser during his yearly visit to Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. Although a nonscientist, Hooper has written on Antarctic issues for fifteen years, and her familiarity with and enthusiasm for the continent enhances the story considerably. The majority of Ferocious Summer describes Fraser’s work over the course of the 2001-2002 Antarctic summer, which lasts from October to March, and is a critical breeding period for many species.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of Ferocious Summer is Hooper's careful description of the Fraser team’s research methods, which are painstaking and time-consuming. During their time in the Antarctic, Fraser’s team engages in laborious field work, collecting the stomach contents of birds, fitting them with satellite transmitters, and counting populations. The work is messy but necessary, and provides vital data on the population's health. Discussion of global warming often loses sight of the fact that scientists like Fraser are primarily dedicated to obtaining this kind of information, not to proving a political point. Ferocious Summer therefore offers a view of climate change from the perspective of those who actually gather and analyze the data on its effects. The result is that their findings are difficult to dismiss or ignore.

As we soon learn, for the Adelie penguins of Palmer station, the story of climate change has not been a happy one. Fraser and his team find that the 2001-2002 season was “Adelie hell. No ice, too much snow, no krill.” These warmer conditions resulted in a significant drop in the number of healthy Adelie chicks – 1,729, down from 6,531 in the previous season. The implications of Fraser’s research are simple: seemingly minor changes in temperature can have dramatic effects on wildlife and ecosystems. Hooper thus conveys the seriousness of global warming without the alarmism that many find off-putting.

The only weak point in Ferocious Summer is Hooper’s overuse of her diary-like format. At times, her spare prose and abruptly placed quotations disrupt the flow of the writing, but her overall attention to detail and information about the little-known aspects of Antarctic research make for an interesting story. By providing an appealing context – the incredibly charismatic animals of the Antarctic – for climate change science, Hooper will no doubt convince readers both of the value of scientific research in Antarctica and the importance of taking claims about global warming seriously.

No comments: