Bill Fraser: A Love Affair With Antarctica

Susan Woodward

Bill Fraser: A Love Affair With Antarctica

Susan Woodward

American scientist Bill Fraser probably knows the sea ice, animals, and retreating glaciers of Antarctica better than the Montana environment he makes his home. As a specialist in Adelie penguins and global climate change, Fraser has spent almost every summer on the Antarctic Peninsula for nearly three decades.

He begins his annual pilgrimage with a two-day trip from Bozeman to Punta Arenas, at the tip of Chile. From there, it’s a three- to five-day boat ride to the National Science Foundation outpost known as Palmer Station, where he’s lead scientist for several months at a stretch.

“It’s been my life,” says Fraser, 50, as he organizes supplies for U.S. field teams he will work with during his next expedition. “I have no life because of it, but I probably wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”

What Fraser does have is a lifetime of data on the great southern continent. His body of work conclusively shows that global warming is occurring — at an alarming rate. He is outspoken in the face of skeptics.

“Not only is there less sea ice on average every winter, but we’re getting less-cold winters, so the formation of ice is decreasing,” he explains. “That decreasing amount of sea ice is going to have some pretty serious affects on the food chain.”

That’s because krill larvae — a major source of food for Antarctic wildlife — depend on sea ice for their survival.
Krill are part of a delicate ecosystem that Fraser and a team of 25 national and international scientists will soon study further. In April 2001, the scientists will begin GLOBEC (Global Ecosystem Dynamics Program), a three-year, $10-million project. Specifically, GLOBEC will focus on winter food trends in Marguerite Bay, at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula.

During his years in the field, Fraser has observed that the bay has become a winter refuge for increasing numbers of seals, penguins, whales, and sea birds. He speculates that’s because unlike other areas of the peninsula where sea ice is rapidly melting, the ice and hence a huge biomass of krill are still abundant in Marguerite Bay. In other words, the bay may have become a vital sanctuary for predator species.

How much wildlife the bay’s population of krill can support, the way events in the bay affect the greater food chain, and what this all means for global warming are the main questions the GLOBEC scientists will tackle.

"What's happening in the Antarctic is a symptom of a much more severe global illness," says Fraser. "The planet is undergoing some very serious changes due to climate warming."

None of this prevents tourists from visiting, of course. And they come in droves — perhaps as many as 10,000 per year — mostly by cruise ship or small, private boat. Fraser greets many of the 1,200 people who annually visit Palmer Station. “The smaller vessels, purely from an experiential standpoint, probably provide the better experience,” he says. “They tend to spend more time in the Antarctic, they’re much more flexible and can go into areas that the big vessels simply can’t.”

Smaller vessels are also the least regulated, he warns, so it’s important that travelers investigate the legitimacy of the company they’re interested in. “Most of them are top-of-the-line people, fine seamen and good conservationists,” Fraser says.

And solid conservation practices are exactly what Antarctica depends on.