For the penguins of the Patagonian desert, climate change looks like too much water, too soon.


photo of penguinsphoto Liam QuinnThe ground at Punta Tombo is hard, an all but impermeable clay. It doesn’t welcome water. When it rains, water collects in large puddles, some so big they look like inland seas.

Since the first penguin chicks hatched a couple of weeks ago, the colony at Punta Tombo has been filling with them. To a chick they are all precious, tiny and soft as they are, but handling them is more taxing than I expected. You arrive at another nest and see from the eggshells cast to the side that a new chick awaits, ensconced somewhere beneath its parent. Again you drop to your knees, the egg cup clenched in your fist. Again you find yourself nose-to-bill with an angry penguin. Again you struggle to retrieve the offspring it guards, as sweat worms its way down the grime on your face. Some days, after hours of this on the baking Argentine countryside, I wish there were no more chicks, so I could escape the grinding stress of them and go to the field house and sit in the dark.

Eleanor Lee, my wife, tells me I complain too much when I mutter something to this effect one afternoon in early December. She loves to cuddle the chicks. She rubs each and every one of them against her cheeks, talks to them, lets them burrow in her pockets.

We are on our way back from Rawson, the provincial capital of Chubut, where we have gone to renew our visas. It has been three months since we arrived in Argentina to be volunteer field assistants for the Penguin Sentinels project run by Dee Boersma. A biologist at the University of Washington, Boersma has studied penguins for more than 40 years, and since 1982 has overseen a long-term ecological study at Punta Tombo, site of the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world.

Getting a scientist’s visa is more trouble than it’s worth, though, so as one of the project’s several idiosyncrasies El and I are here, technically, as tourists. A long day to propitiate the whims of bureaucracy has brought out a peevishness in which I sometimes indulge. The municipal sky and an unhelpful government official had the same bright, false cheer, but as we get closer to the colony, the clouds turn dark and mean.

“Do you think it will rain?” El asks.

Midway through the breeding season the penguins had to confront something they didn’t see much of in the Patagonian desert: rain.

“No,” I say. I don’t understand why, but something about the topography of Punta Tombo seems to repel the worst weather. Tremendous cells have borne down on us, only to veer away at the last second and leave the landscape dry. But when we pull up to the house, the wind is whining through the guy-wires that hold up a tall radio antenna, and the fraying Argentine flag outside the ticket booth blows out so flat and straight it looks starched.

“Do you think it’s going to rain?” El asks again later, as we climb into our trailer for the night.

“No,” I say, but this time I am less sure as I pull the door shut.

Wind has been our constant companion at Punta Tombo. This is a land famous for its winds, where a man once fired a gun into the gusts and was killed when the bullet was blown back into him. Or so the story goes. I’m inclined to believe it. The wind this night is more monstrous than any I’ve ever heard. It roars overhead, so big and powerful that it sounds like it has palpable mass. Then the rain starts, slowly at first, but building in force until it pounds the roof. The trailer rocks and shudders with the storm’s fury. Deep in my sleeping bag, I feel all too well that I am a small thing huddled at the bottom of a great sky.

The storm rages all night. Although the worst of it has passed by morning, the sky is still a nauseated green when I poke my head out the trailer door. A few penguins are braying, but the mist muffles their calls, while the breeze smells of newly rewetted guano. El and I squish to the house. Inside, Briana Abrahms and Emily Wilson are enjoying a relaxed breakfast. (There is no point in doing the morning nest checks until the rain stops.) Apparently, they inform us, the roof leaks. Water trickles down the walls, pools on the floor, meanders over to the door. We flail at it with a mop, but it seems to be showing itself out, so we decide to see how the penguins are faring.

Outside, the storm has knocked the colony’s desert character askew. The ground at Punta Tombo is hard, an all but impermeable clay. It doesn’t welcome water, and large puddles have formed, some so big they look like inland seas. The dry riverbed that bisects this part of the colony, called a cañada, now runs with shallow but swift rapids. Small groups of penguins stand on its banks. They bob their heads and look from the water to each other, back to the water. Their world was once so neatly demarcated: the water there, the land here, the two only meeting at the shore. With water in places it normally is not, and in racing abundance, they don’t seem to know what to do. Some founder in the puddles, unable to decide whether to swim or walk. Along the cañada, a pair tumbles into the torrent when the water suddenly chews the banks out from under their feet. They pop to the surface, bemused, and are swept around a bend.

The rest of the penguins are covered in mud. They look so morose that I worry they will catch their deaths from cold, but then I remember they are penguins and so are used to being wet. Prefer it, actually.

We wander around until the weather has calmed enough for us to do the nest check. Given how vulnerable I felt last night, even sheltered and dry and human, I approach the task filled with foreboding. Eighty chicks have already hatched in this part of the colony, and most are still small. What a relief it is to find that everyone in the first few nests is okay, if a little damp. The feeling lasts until I come to a nest midway through the circuit, 819D. Yesterday, the pair there had two chicks. Today, the female, band number 53172, is brooding her second chick, but her first is sprawled in the dirt in front of her, dead.

Per the protocol, whenever a penguin dies, be it adult or chick, we try to figure out what killed it. I retrieve the chick’s body. It is cold and limp, and slick with dubious fluids. Mud cakes its eyes and bill; 53172 probably trod on it after it was dead. I shiver with revulsion, but death is still data, so I get out my scale and calipers. The poor thing weighs 182 grams. Its bill is 1.56 centimeters long and 0.81 centimeters deep. Its flipper is 2.93 centimeters long, and its foot 3.27 centimeters. It is fat and fleshy, and to all appearances healthy, aside from being dead. Clearly it died of exposure during the storm.

“Sorry, little one,” I say, and lay the chick in front of its nest. I stand too quickly, wobble a little. Two nests later, a female is brooding both her chicks, the first of which is living, and the second, which is not. It, too, is wet, and died during the storm. In the nest after, an adult male sits on his two dead chicks. They had wedged themselves under him as far as they could, but their rumps were still exposed, and the rain soaked them, and the wind blew, and that was that.

Feeling glum, I walk to the other side of the cañada, where El has been checking another group of nests. She is downcast when I reach her. She has so far had five dead or missing chicks. “When I heard the rain last night, I thought it sounded nice,” she says as she holds a sixth, and lays it next to its sibling, the seventh. She looks at the body, touches it. “I didn’t know it would be like this.”

The storm could hardly have struck at a more lethal time. A small chick cannot regulate its own temperature. For the first three weeks of its life, it depends on its parents to stay warm. After that, its down will insulate it against the cold, but only if the down is dry. If it is wet and the wind blows against it, it becomes worthless. So we see the storm’s most lasting effect: Of the 80 chicks in this area, it claimed 13. Almost all of them were around ten days old: a little too big for their parents to cover them completely, a little too small to keep themselves alive.

photo of a penguin chick and its motherphoto Graham MontgomerySmall penguin chicks cannot regulate their body temperature, and for the first three weeks of life, depend entirely on their parents to stay warm. After that, their down will insulate them, but only if it is dry.

I weigh and measure El’s last two dead chicks while she sits next me, hugging her knees. After we’re finished, we go back to the house and check a plastic rain gauge attached to a fencepost. It is usually full of dead bugs, but today their carcasses float in 11.4 millimeters of rain. I have to check twice to be sure. Yes, 11.4 millimeters. That is a little more than one centimeter, which is not quite half an inch. I think of the sodden penguins, the enormous puddles, the new river in the cañada, the dead chicks we left out in the open so the kelp gulls could find them. Half an inch of rain caused all of this. Half an inch!

When we speak of penguins and climate change, we tend to look first to the species that live in the colder parts of the world. The emperor and the Adélie, perhaps the two most well-known penguins, both breed only in Antarctica, and the poles are the fastest-warming regions on the planet. In the past few decades, mean winter air temperatures in Antarctica have risen by almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit. One of many consequences is a shift in sea ice coverage, either up or down depending on a suite of factors. This is a threat to both penguin species. In some places where sea ice cover is increasing, emperors and Adélies are forced to waddle more than 50 miles from their colonies to open water – far too great a distance for chicks that might be waiting for their parents to return with food. In other parts of Antarctica, the sea ice breaks up earlier or has disappeared altogether, either sweeping emperor chicks into the sea before they’re ready or forcing thousands of Adélies, which will breed only near sea ice, to abandon old nesting sites. (On the other hand, retreating glaciers on land have made new territory available for Adélies on which to form colonies.)

Even species that breed outside Antarctica, like the king penguin, or those that prefer ice-free waters, like the chinstrap, are yoked to the sea ice and its new dynamism. The Antarctic food web is built on a crustacean called krill, a shrimplike creature about two inches long. Its life cycle is tied to sea ice and the algae that grows beneath it, which krill scrape off to eat with their tiny whirring forelegs. At their highest densities, krill might gather by the millions, by the billions, with as many as ten thousand individuals per square yard. The reddish smears they form extend for miles. They can be seen from space. Whales gorge on them. Penguins do, too.

Krill abundance varies naturally, but shrinking sea ice cover, on top of a growing fishery that hauls in more than 100,000 tons of krill each year (mostly to make aquaculture feed), have together led to declines of up to 80 percent in some parts of the southern oceans. Thus, even though they were predicted to benefit from less sea ice, populations of chinstrap penguins decline as they have a harder time finding food. King penguins could potentially suffer as well, since they feed on small forage fish that in turn feed on krill.

For penguins in the desert, the effects of climate change come in different ways. One way is rainstorms – their timing, their frequency, their strength. Since 1982, Boersma has watched the weather here, keeping track of daily temperatures (high, low, current), rainfall (usually zero but not always, as we have just seen), cloud cover, wind speed and direction. Storms would hit from time to time, sometimes with dramatic results; one especially bad one in 1999 killed 67 study chicks. That big storms were a fact of life (or death) for seabirds was known, but Boersma wondered if a broader pattern lurked under all the anecdotes. Were there more storms at Punta Tombo now than when she began? As can happen when her curiosity stirs in such a way, she decided to find out. (“Dee does that a lot,” Ginger Rebstock, a researcher in Boersma’s lab, told me once. “Ideas will be floating around, and then she’ll come in and say, ‘We have to work on this right now.’”)

In Seattle, Boersma and Rebstock went back through all the project’s weather data. Rebstock also found records from the airport in Trelew that went back decades. In the 28 years they looked at, storms killed chicks in 13 of them; or, put another way, storms killed 8 percent on average of whatever chicks were alive when they hit. In two seasons, storms killed more chicks than anything else: 43 percent of all chicks in one year; in the other, 50 percent. (Lest I get too depressed about so many chicks dying in 11.1 millimeters of water, one chick died during a storm when it rained just 1.2 millimeters.)

photo of penguins in a desert, burrows evidentphoto Pedro AlonsoPenguins in Punta Tombo are adapted to dry conditions. The desert is getting more rain from bigger, fiercer storms, and climate models predict this trend will only continue.

There was also the nature of storms. Big ones that struck early in the season, when chicks were small, tended to be deadlier, and Boersma and Rebstock found the frequency of such storms had increased since the 1960s. The Patagonian steppe was getting more of its rain from these bigger, fiercer storms, and climate models predicted the trend would only continue, with increases in extreme rainfall events of 40 to 70 percent within this century alone. The penguins, not having had to adapt to such events, were likely to suffer as a result.

Hers was one of the first studies to show a direct effect of climate change on a seabird. Here, Boersma said, is what climate change looks like to the penguins of Punta Tombo: water, more water, too much water, and too soon, before these waterbirds are ready for it.

The sky has cleared by late afternoon. What few clouds remain look like big, fluffy piles of cotton, but we know the truth, having spent a long day in two different nest areas, accounting for both the lucky living and the drenched dead. As we visit the rest of the areas over the coming ten-day circuit, we will find more chicks that likely died during the storm, although their advanced decay will make it hard to tell what killed them.

Now, standing on the crest of the hill, and looking over the colony as it dries out, a couplet from Ezra Pound comes to mind:

The wind is part of the process
The rain is part of the process

The lines are from one of his longer cantos. He scribbled them on a piece of toilet paper in 1945 while the American military was holding him in detention near Pisa, Italy, for pro-Fascist radio broadcasts he made during World War II. Imprisoned in a wire cage, exposed to the elements, and slowly losing his mind, he used the wind and rain as a refrain. They were a touchstone, a reassuring sign of the natural order of the world. But not here. This has been a wind and rain without instructions.

We are about to leave when Wilson asks, “What’s that over there?”

I look where she points. Some 40 or 50 yards away, a large white thing is lying on the campo. It might be an enormous kelp gull, but when we arrive, we see it is something much more marvelous: a black-browed albatross. Its eyes are open in the sightless way of the dead, and the black brow of its name gives it a stern, dignified expression. Its white body is bright and spotless. Its dark wings are tucked against its sides. When I lift the body, the wings gracefully unfurl, tumbling to the ground.

The black-browed albatross is the most common albatross in the world. More than a million live throughout the Southern Hemisphere, although their numbers are dropping. (They flock to longline fishing boats and trawlers to scavenge, and pay dearly for it. Worldwide, they are the seabird most frequently killed from entanglements in fishing gear.) Unlike the penguins, they have no colonies on the Argentine mainland, so while we know they are out there, they have yet to come close enough to the land for us to see them.

We gather around the albatross. We have no idea how it died, but I can’t shake the belief that the storm snatched up this bird known for its casual mastery of wind and cast it to the ground simply to flaunt its own power.

“It’s beautiful,” Abrahms says.

“What should we do?” El asks. No one is sure. This is a contingency even the almighty protocol has failed to anticipate. We respond the only way we know how: Abrahms takes out her GPS device and records the albatross’s coordinates in her notebook; I pull the scale and small ruler from my pocket. The ruler is perfectly adequate for a penguin, whose flippers are six inches long; less so for the full length of an albatross’s outstretched wings. But it’s what I have.

We measure and weigh the giant bird as best we can, and then fold its beautiful wings and lay its body back under a bush. I tear off a strip of bright pink flag and tie it to a branch as a marker. The albatross will probably be gone tomorrow, dragged away by a colpeo fox or some other scavenger of sufficient ambition and strength and hunger. We gaze on the thing a moment longer, and then crunch to the tourist trail and start back to the house, leaving the long pink flag to flap behind us in the breeze.

Adapted from Eric Wagner’s new book, Penguins in the Desert, to be released in April 2018. Reproduced by permission of Oregon State University Press. Wagner writes about science and nature from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

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