Tags Posts tagged with "Danger Islands"

Danger Islands

It’s got great pictures and is good news. As a result, it’s a story heard around the world.

Back in 2015, Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, started the tedious yet important job of counting Adélie penguins in a place with a well-earned name: the Danger Islands. This chain of nine Antarctic islands is surrounded by rocks and potentially ship-trapping ice.

These parameters present a picture-perfect paradise for Adélie penguins, who live, breed, eat, squawk and poop there — more on that in a moment. Armed with drones that fly over these islands and working with collaborators from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at Oxford University in England and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Lynch and others counted these flightless birds. The final number came to an astounding 1.5 million.

Wait, but how could a planet so well covered by satellite imagery, where you can see your car in your driveway through online apps, not know about a colony so large that it’s called a supercolony?

We kind of knew that they lived there, although not in such staggering numbers, when a plane flew overhead in 1957. It wasn’t until more recently, however, that Lynch and Mathew Schwaller from NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland, studied satellite images from guano stains — this is where the poop comes in — that they had an idea of the enormity of a population of penguins that would make Mr. Popper proud.

News outlets, including TBR News Media, couldn’t get enough of the story, grabbing the pictures, getting Lynch and her colleagues on the phone and learning about the creatures.

Publications of all political stripes, from The New York Times to CNN, to The Wall Street Journal to Breitbart News have all covered it.

“It’s a good news story,” said Lynch. “People latched onto that.”

Lynch said she spoke directly with 12 or more journalists. At the same time, about 360 stories mentioned Stony Brook and penguins.

Some of the coverage has included mistakes. One report, for example, had spectacular visuals. The narrative, however, suggested the Danger Islands was a hotspot for penguins because the location has been left undisturbed by people.

“That’s not what I said,” she said. “The question was, ‘Why hadn’t we discovered them before?’ The answer was because this is not an area where people go.”

That, she said, is not the same as suggesting that the penguins flourished because humans haven’t been there. It only means we didn’t know about them because visiting the islands is so hazardous.

Another outlet suggested that the Adélie penguins were on the verge of extinction. Not only is that inaccurate, but the population has been growing, as previous research from Lynch indicated.

While that may not fit a simple climate-change narrative, it supports the concept of a warming world.

To simplify the message, the climate-change community has made a link between population and climate, which is “impossible to break,” she said, even though it’s also inaccurate.

There is this “kind of tug of war between the scientists dealing with nuance and detail, and the conversation community,” she said. They don’t need to be at odds, she added.

Indeed, this colony thrives because the Danger Islands hasn’t increased in temperature at the same rate as other parts of the Antarctic.

The media spotlight taught her a few lessons.

For starters, in addition to the talking points she had during her interactions, she would include bullet points in the negative, to make it clear what the researchers aren’t saying.

Ultimately, however, Lynch recognizes the value of the photos.

“The drone footage is amazing and stunning,” she said. She gives credit to the Woods Hole staff. “If we didn’t have pictures” the story would likely not have received such extensive coverage.

What’s the lesson? From now on, she said, “I’ll think about the visuals in advance, if I want the attention.”

Adélie penguins jump off an iceberg of one of the Danger Islands. Photo by Rachel Herman from Stony Brook University/ Louisiana State University

By Daniel Dunaief

In October of 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik, people imagined that satellites hovering over their heads could see everything and anything down below. Indeed, in the early days, some Americans rushed to close their blinds, hoping the Kremlin couldn’t see what they might be eating for dinner or watching on TV.

Satellites today collect such a wealth of information about the world below that it’s often not easy to analyze and interpret it.

That’s the case with the Danger Islands in the Antarctic. Difficult for people to approach by boat because of treacherous rocks around the islands and sea ice that might trap a ship, these islands are home to a super colony of Adélie penguins that number 1.5 million.

Nesting Adelie penguins. Photo by Michael Polito from Louisiana State University

This discovery of birds that were photographed in a reconnaissance plane in 1957 but haven’t been studied or counted since “highlights the ultimate challenge of drinking from the firehose of satellite-based information,” said Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University and a co-author on a Scientific Reports publication announcing the discovery of these supernumerary waterfowl.

Adélie penguins are often linked to the narrative about climate change. Lynch said finding this large colony confirms what researchers knew about Adélie biology. In West Antarctic, it is warming and the population is declining. On the eastern side, it’s colder and icier, which are conditions more suited for Adélie survival. The Danger Islands are just over the edge of those distinct regions, on the eastern side, where it is still cold and icy.

A population discovery of this size has implications for management policies. At this point, different groups are designing management strategies for both sides of the peninsula. A German delegation is leading the work for a marine protected area on the east side. An Argentinian team is leading the western delegation.

Adelie penguins on sea ice next to Comb Island. Photo by Michael Polito, Louisiana State University

This discovery supports the MPA proposal, explained Mercedes Santos, a researcher from the Instituto Antártico Argentino and a co-convener of the Domain 1 MPA Expert Group. The MPA proposal was introduced in 2017 and is under discussion in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, where the United States is one of 25 members.

Said Santos in a recent email, “This publication will help us to show the importance of the area for protection, considering that decisions should be made [with the] best available information.” The location of the Danger Islands protects it from the strongest effects of climate change, as the archipelago is in a buffer zone between areas that are experiencing warming and those where the climate remains consistent over longer periods of time.

Whales and other mammals that eat krill create an unknown factor in developing fisheries plans. While penguins spend considerable time above water and are easier to monitor and count, the population of whales remains more of a mystery.

Heather Lynch with a penguin. Photo from Heather Lynch

Lynch said the more she studies penguins, the more skeptical she is that they can “stand in” as ecosystem indicators. Their populations tend to be variable. While it would be simpler to count penguins as a way to measure ecosystem dynamics, researchers also need to track populations of other key species, such as whales, she suggested. Humpback whales are “in competition with penguins for prey resources,” Lynch said.

The penguin data is “one piece of information for one species,” but MPAs are concerned with the food web for the entire region, which also includes crabeater seals. For the penguin population study, Lynch recruited members of her lab to contribute to the process of counting the penguins manually. “I figured I should do my fair share,” she said, of work she describes as “painstaking.” Indeed, Lynch and her students counted over 280,000 penguins by hand. She and her team used the hand counting effort to confirm the numbers generated by the computer algorithm.

“The counting was done to make sure the computer was doing its job well,” she said. She also wanted to characterize the errors of this process as all census counts come with errors and suggested that the future of this type of work is with computer vision.

Lynch appreciated the work of numerous collaborators to count this super colony. Even before scientists trekked out to the field to count these black and white birds, she and Matthew Schwaller from NASA studied guano stains on the Danger Islands in 2015 using existing NASA images.

The scientific team at Heroina Island in Antarctica. Photo by Alex Borowicz, Stony Brook University

This penguin team included Tom Hart from Oxford University and Michael Polito from Louisiana State University, who have collaborated in the field for years, so it was “natural that we would work together to try and execute an expedition.” Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, has considerable expertise in the modeling side, especially with the climate; and Hanumant Singh, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University has experience using drones in remote areas, Lynch said.

The penguins on the Danger Islands react to the presence of humans in a similar way to the ones elsewhere throughout the Antarctic. The birds generally don’t like creatures that are taller than they are, in part because they fear skuas, which are larger predatory birds that work together to steal an egg off a nest. Counting the penguins requires the researchers to stand, but when the scientists sit on the ground, the penguins “will approach you. You have to make sure you’re short enough.”

Lynch would like to understand the dynamics of penguin nest choices that play out over generations. She’s hoping to use a snapshot of the layout of the nests to determine how a population is changing. Ideally, she’d like to “look at a penguin colony to see whether it’s healthy and declining.” She believes she is getting close.

Social

9,205FansLike
0FollowersFollow
1,116FollowersFollow
33SubscribersSubscribe