2002-2003 Science Planning Summary

Biology & Medicine

Dr. Polly Penhale
Program Manager


NSF/OPP 01-30525
Station: Palmer Station
RPSC POC: Karl Newyear
Research Site(s): Dream Island, Biscoe Point

Monitoring the effects of tourism and environmental variability on Adelie penguins at Palmer Station, Antarctica
Dr. William R. Fraser
Polar Oceans Research Group
Dr. Donna Patterson
Polar Oceans Research Group

Research Objectives: The potential consequences of antarctic tourism on Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) have been debated for more than 20 years. However, the rapid proliferation of these activities since 1970, particularly on the Antarctic Peninsula, has not only forced an extension of these questions to wildlife populations in general, but also colored them with a sense of urgency and controversy that has polarized opinions. The key concern is that continued increases in these activities will eventually overcome the ability of research to address critical issues in a timely and biologically meaningful manner. This is a valid concern, since studies to examine human impacts have either not been implemented at critical sites or are limited in scope because of logistic and experimental constraints.

Understanding how tourism might affect Adélie penguins rests fundamentally on the need to quantify and understand the natural variability manifested by breeding populations over spatial and temporal scales. However, although it is generally recognized that without these data it will be difficult to critically assess any localized changes from tourism, this ecosystem approach is expensive and complex and is not likely to be justified by the need to understand tourist impacts.

This group will continue a tourist monitoring program underway at Palmer Station as part of a large ecosystem-scale study. Palmer Station mirrors current patterns in tourism and tourist–wildlife interactions in the western Antarctic Peninsula. It also provides unique opportunities for research on human impacts. This includes the presence of long-term databases that document environmental variability over time and space scales in both marine and terrestrial habitats, as well as the ability to examine potential tourist impacts as part of controlled experiments.

This research is expected to capitalize and expand on two key findings to date. One is the discovery of a previously unrecognized source of variability in the Adélie penguin population that results from interactions between landscape geomorphology and changing patterns of snow deposition due to climate warming. The other is the observation that penguins breeding in less desirable landscapes may be more susceptible to cumulative impacts induced by the presence of human activity.

These findings have important implications for understanding interactions between climate change and ecosystem response, and for detecting, mitigating, and managing the consequences of human activities such as tourism.

Field Season Overview:
Research will be closely integrated with the schedule and activities of Dr. Fraser's ongoing LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) project, BP-013-P. Zodiac inflatable boats will be used to travel between Palmer Station and study sites on local islands. Seabird population and behavioral data will be collected from colonies subject to a range of human disturbance.