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"Dying?" I ask. "Not necessarily," she says. "They may just be moving farther south. They are cold-loving birds and are having a hard time ‘making a living’ here, which means building nests, having chicks, and feeding them. It’s simply gotten too warm, which I can’t believe I’m saying, since it’s Antarctica. What we don’t know is where they’re going. There aren’t many scientists working farther south of here to monitor them."

It’s sleeting softly now as we wend our way among the stone nests of the birds Rider studies. The screeching of parents imprinting the sound of their voices on chicks is ever present; when the chicks leave the nest for good in a couple of weeks, they will recognize each other only by squawk.

"I was surprised when I started coming here four years ago," Rider says. "I had worked previously in other, colder parts of Antarctica. One hour after the first time I arrived, it started to rain and didn’t stop for 14 days. I was shocked. All this warming means that just since last year we’ve lost 20 percent of the Adélie population on Petermann. If you do the numbers, that means the island will be devoid of them by 2021."

Cold Hard Science

The Antarctic Treaty, signed by 12 nations in 1959 and revised most significantly by 49 countries in 1991, specifies that Antarctica "is a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science," free of nationalistic or militaristic claims. It specifically bans commercial exploitation—primarily for the oil and minerals that everyone is certain lie beneath an average of 7,000 feet of ice—until 2041.

But now those supposedly binding dictates are being tested. Most brazenly, last October the U.K. announced a new claim to a section nearly the size of Alaska, overlapping existing claims made by Chile and Argentina. The British government, it seems, hoped to stake out its territory now, before inevitable disputes break out—as they have in the Arctic.

At a few of the bases along the coast we see far more military men than scientists, representing nations that don’t want to relinquish claims to Antarctica but are unwilling to invest in real science programs. When we visited King George Island in early January, home to a dozen bases, the Chilean science station was shuttered, unoccupied. Several of the other contingencies, including South Korea and Ukraine, seemed to be represented solely by military personnel.

Five days after leaving Rider, we pull into a Chilean base called Gabriel González Videla (named in honor of a Chilean president, the first head of state to visit Antarctica, in 1948). We are welcomed with open arms. "We are here for four months," the base comandante, Alberto Larenazo, tells us, as we tiptoe among the penguin droppings, "so we are pleased to see everyone!"

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