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Marine Biologist Studies Climate's Effects On Adelie Penguins


Last year on this program, we took you to the end of the Earth, Antarctica, to speak with James McClintock. He's a marine biologist with the University of Alabama in Birmingham. He was at the U.S. Palmer Station. That's a research center operated by the National Science Foundation. He was looking at the effects of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula. Well, James McClintock is back at the station. He is wrapping up his fieldwork for this year, and we wanted to check back in with him. He is on the line. Professor McClintock, welcome back.

JAMES MCCLINTOCK: It's a pleasure to be here.

GREENE: I'll start with a basic question, professor. How's the weather?

MCCLINTOCK: Well, you know what? Unlike last year when I was down here, it's been raining more. And this is something that comes as a little bit of a surprise to folks. And I went and looked at the data here at the station, and it's rained about 30 percent more this year for the same time that I was down last year. And if you look at the long-term trends, what's happening is you're getting more and more precipitation that comes down not in the form of snow, per se, but in the form of rain. The Adelie penguin, which of course is endangered in this area, one of the things that happens to the chicks when they get rainfall is they get wet. And then they can essentially freeze from that. They're used to snow.

GREENE: Can you just, in a few words, remind us who these creatures are for people who don't know them?

MCCLINTOCK: Yeah. The Adelie penguins are one of the three brush-tail penguins that frequent the Antarctic Peninsula. They look like Charlie Chaplin. They've got a little tuxedoes on. They're about two feet tall. And the history of them here around Palmer is they used to be extremely abundant. There were about 15,000 breeding pairs here in - back in the '70s. But over time, the population has really dropped off.

GREENE: So you're seeing the population continue to drop off where you are, but I saw some news stories about a huge colony of these penguins, like 1 1/2 million, discovered in a different part of Antarctica. So what does that tell us? Is that good news in the whole broader story of climate change?

MCCLINTOCK: I think that it's good news and that it represents a wonderful opportunity to essentially provide a conservation of this colony, maybe by extending a marine-protected area that's being proposed for the peninsula. What I'm concerned about is as climate change extends its reach to this region of Antarctica where these - where this giant penguin rookery is located, they too will be faced with the challenges that are challenging penguins up and down the western coast of Antarctic Peninsula.

GREENE: I can imagine both arriving for your research down there at the bottom of the Earth and also the moment when you leave, which is happening now, it must be a moment to reflect. What are you thinking about as you come home this time?

MCCLINTOCK: Well, I'm thinking I can't wait to get back and experience Antarctica again. You return from Antarctica every time a renewed ambassador, and you realize that it is very much symbolic of a continent that is shared by countries at a time when it's important to remember that. And it's just a fantastic place to do science.

GREENE: Well, professor, safe travels home. We really appreciate you talking to us.

MCCLINTOCK: Thank you, my pleasure.

GREENE: That is marine biologist James McClintock with the University of Alabama at Birmingham speaking to us from Palmer Station just off the Antarctic Peninsula. We should say he's also the author of the book "Lost Antarctica: Adventures In A Disappearing Land."

(SOUNDBITE OF EXXASENS' "SCIENCE WILL SAVE US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 15, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline incorrectly referred to James McClintock as a botanist. He is a marine biologist.