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A View From The Palmer Research Station In Antarctica


Each year, we catch up with James McClintock. He's a marine biologist with the University of Alabama, Birmingham who does research on climate change. And he makes an annual visit to Antarctica. We reached him by phone, as we have the last two years, at Palmer Station, a U.S. research facility on the Antarctic Peninsula. James McClintock, you there?

JAMES MCCLINTOCK: Hey, David. Yes, I'm here.

GREENE: I feel like I ask you this each time we speak, but I love starting with the question, how's the weather there?

MCCLINTOCK: Well, it's a lovely day. It's probably in the high 30s maybe the low 40s, a little bit of cloud cover. They've had a record snowfall. But right now it's lovely, and the snow is not falling. So that's how it's going.

GREENE: And I feel like I have taken a personal interest in the Adelie penguin population, who you talk about whenever we speak - I mean those little creatures who look like Charlie Chaplin in their little tuxedos. Are they of interest to you on this trip, and what do we know about them?

MCCLINTOCK: The news is a little sad. The population of 15,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins has reached a new low. It's down to 1,100 this year. So over 90 percent of them are disappearing. What's happening mainly that's causing the big problem is that they come in at a very predetermined time of year to lay their eggs. And then along comes these unseasonably late snowstorms because it's getting warmer and more humid. Ironically, it's snowing later. And then the snow melts, and the eggs drown. So the Adelie's having a really tough time right now.

GREENE: You arrive here, you know, each year. As you arrive this time and you look out at the landscape, does anything strike you as starkly different from the last time you were there?

MCCLINTOCK: If you look behind the station, Lamar Glacier (ph) is just retreating very, very quickly. In fact, I was talking to a couple of Palmer Station staff this morning that went on a little camping trip the other day and spent the night sleeping on the rim next to the glacier. And they said they couldn't sleep. The glacier cracked, and pieces fell into the water all through the night. Like, every 20 minutes to half an hour. They'd be woken or be jarred by a crack of ice. This is indicative of 87 percent of the glaciers along the Western Antarctic Peninsula that are now in rapid retreat. This is just sort of the canary in the coal mine here.

GREENE: We're now two years into a presidency in the United States with a president who really has cast a lot of doubt about climate change, also pulled out of the big Paris climate accord. Is that affecting your work at all or affecting the work of other researchers like you?

MCCLINTOCK: Not so much here in the National Science Foundation program. But colleagues that are working in the Environmental Protection Agency, et cetera, are definitely experiencing some impacts on their climate-related research.

GREENE: Are you worried at all about the future if, you know - as priorities shift based on a philosophy and a vision set by this president?

MCCLINTOCK: Yeah. I think scientists in general are concerned because we see this as a very important time for this research. And we're looking for continued and perhaps even greater support to provide the kinds of information that'll be critical for policy decisions as we move into a future of climate change that is already upon us, quite frankly.

GREENE: James McClintock, it is always great to catch up with you. Have a great trip, and best of luck in your research.

MCCLINTOCK: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.