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EcoSigns @ National Geographic Magazine
   
By Fen MontaignePhotographs by Peter Essick



From penguins to alpine flowers, animals and plants are coping with the heat—or they're not.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Standing on the fringes of an Adélie colony on Humble Island, Fraser surveyed more than a hundred nine-pound (four-kilogram), knee-high spheres of solid muscle. Packed tightly together, the penguins pecked at neighbors that infringed upon their territory. An incessant honking and trumpeting rose from the colony. Smeared with a gumbo of urine and guano, pear-shaped gray chicks hovered close to their nests, awaiting the arrival of a parent that would regurgitate several ounces of krill down their throats.
 
I remarked on the overpowering stench, but Fraser—tall and slender, dressed in a sun-bleached green parka, beige baseball cap, and black rain pants spattered white and red with bird excrement—seemed to take no notice.
 
"Smells like life," he said.
 
Fraser was searching for a penguin on which to affix a satellite transmitter, a three-inch (eight-centimeter), water-proof device that would let him know where the Adélies were foraging. Crouching, he took a few steps into the colony, setting off a frantic chorus of alarm. He snatched a bird by the flipper and brought it, flailing and squawking, to the waiting lap of biologist Cindy Anderson, who taped the transmitter to its back.
 
The transmitter would tell Fraser and Anderson that the Adélies were feeding within ten miles (16 kilometers), as there was an abundance of krill close to shore this year. Such foraging information is an important part of the ecological puzzle Fraser and his colleagues are piecing together about the Antarctic Peninsula. Sea ice is a nursery for krill, and krill are the key link in a food chain that supports penguins, whales, and many other animals. If sea ice keeps retreating, then krill—and everything that eats them—could be in trouble.
 
Fraser first came to Antarctica in 1974 as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. He was based at Palmer Station, on the west side of the peninsula. Palmer is accessible only by boat, and back then almost nothing was known about the wildlife there. So Fraser began censusing seals and seabirds, noting the dates of their arrival, hatching, and fledging. He gave scant thought to global warming, but the data he steadily compiled would eventually prove crucial to his future work on climate change.
 
"I fell in love with the sheer wildness that existed here," recalls Fraser, who is now president of the nonprofit Polar Oceans Research Group in Montana. "This was virgin territory. It was the sheer power of the Earth—ice and rock. It was a place where you could still feel inconsequential. You were part of a working natural system that paid you no mind."

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Journey to Antarctica and enjoy the sights and sounds of penguins, seals, and other wildlife. Then download wallpaper and meet the fearless explorers of this frozen frontier.

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Climate change has shifted the natural rhythms and processes of our planet. What's happening to Earth's climate, and what are the implications for our future? What signs of climate change have you noticed in the flora and fauna around you?

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Did you ever notice that all ice does not look the same? This is especially true near the Poles, where sea ice can take on multiple forms. Scientists who work in these regions came up with a helpful and entertaining set of terms to distinguish between the various formations. "Frazil ice" is needle-shaped ice crystals that create an icy slush in the water. When ice is between frazil and freezing, it's called "grease ice," which has a matte-like appearance. "Pancake ice" is used to describe disks of ice that form when waves jostle pieces of smooth ice against each other, rounding their edges. "Anchor ice" is submerged ice that is attached to ocean floor. And finally, a "bergy bit" is a rough piece of floating ice, spawned from a disintegrating iceberg, between 3 and 16 feet (one and five meters) high.
 
—Nora Gallagher
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