Ocean News

Behind the scenes with Tom Hart

By Lauren De Vos, 3rd November 2021

Dr Tom Hart is a self-professed penguinologist whose interest lies in collecting sound, long-term data that allow us to track change in wild places. He is also a research fellow at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. Working together with Heather Lynch at New York’s Stony Brook University, Oceanites’ Antarctic Site Inventory, the Australian Antarctic Division, NOAA and the Zoological Society of London, Tom aims to increase the scale and scope of monitoring in challenging polar reaches like Antarctica by harnessing cost-effective technologies. The goal? To use long-term, remotely collected datasets to track the changing environment for seabirds and marine mammals on the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands – and disentangle the possible causes of their declining populations. We chatted to Tom to find out more about what got him started, why he stays committed and what he hopes to see for the future of this frozen part of our planet.

Dr Tom Hart in the field. Photo © Thomas Peschak

Q1. There are many different routes that researchers take to end up in their fields of expertise. You studied macaroni penguins for your PhD and now run Penguin Watch. Why penguins?

Tom Hart: Well, it’s not because of the penguins themselves that I’ve ended up where I am. It’s because of … data! The real reason I’ve ended up studying penguins is because they are found everywhere around the Antarctic Peninsula and therefore they are something that you can measure. They are indicators. So it’s less that I am someone who loves penguins than it is that I am someone who loves the process of tracking change and wants to work to conserve functional ecosystems. For me, wild spaces that happen to have penguins in them (and you can measure penguins!) are what is important – and it’s those wild spaces that I’m interested in monitoring and conserving properly. Penguins are a really good indicator of what is happening to that environment over time. We are able to measure a number of threats and their impacts in this way, including climate change. But we can also measure the impact of the presence of people, and fishing. I want to contribute to maintaining a wild, functioning ecosystem in Antarctica. It just so happens that climate change is a major factor in Antarctica, where I work, which is why it becomes one of the main threats that is monitored.

Adelie penguins and chick. Photo © Tom Hart

Q2. But then, why Antarctica?

Tom Hart: Antarctica is tough. It’s incredibly beautiful. That’s really where my real passion lies – in that wildness and in the challenge of understanding it well enough to do right by it. I certainly always wanted to visit Antarctica and I fell in love with the place on first seeing it. My first experience was on the subantarctic island of South Georgia, which is where I did my PhD, and that’s where I just fell for the landscapes and sense of wilderness.

Overlooking a penguin colony. Photo © Penguin Watch

Q3. The Antarctic Peninsula is about as far from everywhere that anyone can hope to reach on this planet. In fact, in some instances, it’s closer to launch into space than it is to travel so far south. What are some of the logistical challenges of working in Antarctica as a scientist?

Tom Hart: I met Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and we worked out that between space and Antarctica, we’d been each other’s next nearest neighbours! Long-term monitoring in such a remote place relies on thinking differently about how to scale data collection so that we are collecting enough quality information to say something sound. That’s why our project approach has been to rewire the traditional way of thinking and doing things so that we can move away from time-limited research that can only happen where there are established research bases and camps. Many places across Antarctica are simply too hard to reach to stay for any length of time and yet we require information over long timescales if we are to say anything meaningful about change on this continent. So I’d say rather than being limited by the challenges of the environment, we’re hacking new, remote ways of looking at this landscape over huge spatial and temporal scales – a way of working around the traditional challenges of exposure, limited time and limited access due to distance.

Adélie Penguins at Paulet island, Antarctic Peninsula. Photo by Ignacio Juarez Martinez | © Penguin Watch

Q4. What sparked your thinking differently about how to conduct research on the Antarctic Peninsula, resulting in your project?

Tom Hart: It was simply necessary. One of the major impetuses came from when I was using a tour ship to sample feathers and guano about 12 years ago. The embarrassing realisation was that the tour guides on board knew more about the natural history of the place and its seabirds – and its penguins – than I did. They had intimate local knowledge of the differences from site to site. They knew which colonies bred first and they knew which ones were not being captured in scientific research. I realised then that there was all this local knowledge that was simply not captured or used by the scientific community. The question then became ‘Well, how do we capture this information?’ One way was to turn the guides into citizen scientists, but there would still be variance between the data different observers were collecting and they were still only visiting a few times a year. So the question then became ‘What can we do that measures everything all the time?’ And when you start thinking like that, it allows for vastly different possibilities. The trick is having that initial thought or observation that can change your perspective. That’s the hard bit. Once you’ve changed your perspective, it becomes more obvious what needs to be done. Rather than thinking ‘What can we do next? How do we add to this?’, start thinking ‘I want to know everything. And I’m prepared to lose some things that aren’t important in order to get information on this scale.’ This gives you an entirely different way to go about your work.

Dr Tom Hart in the field. Photo © Thomas Peschak.

Q5. What, if anything, have you noticed changing most on the Antarctic Peninsula since you started working there?

Tom Hart: In some places you really do see a difference in ice, particularly in South Georgia. I have some photos that date back 10 years and you can see major retreats in ice coverage. This is different when we look at what we get from the cameras: there are a few colonies where I can visually detect declines, but for the most part you can’t detect anecdotally that form of trend. That’s why long-term data are so important; you don’t see change in the same way when you’re on the ground. And it’s not the change I would see if I were there observing all year round. The whole point of the cameras is that they capture the things that I would otherwise not notice.

Dr Tom Hart and his team looking over a penguin colony. Photo © Penguin Watch

Q6. Some of the findings must be really disheartening and having direct observations of the effects of our changing climate must be hard to keep facing. How – and why – do you stay committed?

Tom Hart: A day in Antarctica still feeds your soul, there’s no doubt about that. It’s stunningly beautiful, so actually it’s easy to forget some of the bad news day to day. You’re reminded only when you go to those sites where you can see a change, for instance at Bailey Head where the chinstrap penguin colony has halved – and it was a big colony, so the fact that you can see this impact is significant. Seeing some of these glaciers that have collapsed, or places in South Georgia where there was once a glacier and now there’s a bay – that’s disheartening. But we’ve had results. The creation of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area is an example of a major step forward. At the time of its creation, it was the biggest marine protected area in the world – and that kind of achievement buoys you up to keep working for the next challenge: the creation of a marine protected area around the Antarctic Peninsula.

Checking on the camera setup at an adélie penguin colony. Photo © Penguin Watch

Q7. Antarctica is remote, but what happens there has consequences for us all. How do you connect at home with a place that seems as out of reach as space? And what might this mean for those of us who have never visited it?

Tom Hart: I think it’s easier to be inspired when you see wilderness. That’s the dose that gets me through the rest of the year! I think that measuring the impacts of our actions, particularly where we see their overall consequences in a wilderness as far away as Antarctica, has affected our team and determined how we behave at home. That can be whether we ride bicycles to lower our daily carbon footprint or avoid any products containing krill. It could be us taking care with the seafood we consume or making use of the new potential that the pandemic has brought us in the form of Zoom meetings that lessen the need for us to fly to conferences and workshops. None of us are by any means perfect, but I do think we are affected by what we see and we use what we know to determine our daily choices. There are wise choices to make that are reasonably simple fixes, and in many cases that would make financial sense for all of us individually. It’s annoying that governments have all these policy levers and yet they’re not pulling them. However, you can definitely make your own choices. In our discussions and daily advocacy, it helps to talk about what the consequences of our changing climate or declining biodiversity will be for us all. For instance, we know the price of fuel will go up as our reliance on fossil fuels drives our carbon footprint ever higher. So it makes individual sense, monetarily speaking, to stop driving a 4×4 in the city and make a different choice whenever possible.

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