published : 2023-08-25

Vanishing Antarctic Ice Endanger Emperor Penguin Chicks Survival

Diminishing sea ice levels severely imperil 30% of recognized emperor colonies

A breathtaking overhead shot of the Antarctic landscape at the beginning of winter, showing the ice just starting to form around the colonies of emperor penguins. A single penguin can be seen in the distance, seemingly watching the change in the terrain. (taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV)

The retreat of ice in a specific region of Antarctica last year seriously threatened the survival of emperor penguin chicks in four colonies, according to new research revealed on Thursday.

Emperor penguins rely on the surrounding ice that solidifies around the southernmost continent during each Antarctic winter, providing a cradle to hatch their eggs and nurture their chicks, which typically dissolve in the summer months.

Scientists using satellite imagery discovered in their study of breeding colonies near the Bellingshausen Sea region near Antarctica, that during the Southern Hemisphere's summer in December, no ice remained after it vanished in 2021.

Devastatingly, researchers suggest that it's highly probable that no chicks survived in four out of the five observed breeding colonies. This is because the penguin chicks, not developing their adult waterproof feathers until close to their usually fledgling time in late December or January, fell victim to the void left by the departing ice.

A poignant image of a young emperor penguin chick, stood alone on the melting ice. The photographer single out the chick in the vast snowy backdrop, the vulnerability highlighting the danger at play. (taken with Nikon D850)

"When the sea ice disintegrates beneath them, the juvenile chicks are prone to either drowning or freezing to death," explains Peter Fretwell, a researcher from the British Antarctic Survey, and a co-author of the recently published study in Nature Communications Earth & Environment.

Antarctica, the sole habitat of the emperor penguin on our planet, experienced near-record low ice levels around its perimeter last year. The experts warn that climate change increases the frequency of such drastic reductions in the future.

Fretwell and his team undertook a preliminary examination of known nesting sites using satellite imagery. The sites are identifiable by the remnants of colored guano, or fecal stains, contrasting against the white ice. The current emperor penguin population, considered the world's largest penguins, consists of around 300,000 breeding pairs.

According to Fretwell, out of the 62 identified penguin colonies, approximately 30% experienced severe effects due to the reduced sea ice levels last year, with 13 likely completely collapsing.

A powerful shot of a researcher, Peter Fretwell, studying a colored satellite imagery. In his hands, the fate of the emperor penguins is in vivid color contrasting against the sterile environment of the research facility. (taken with Sony A7R III)

The alarming reality of such a dramatic event occurring doesn't surprise Daniel Zitterbart, a scientist dedicated to Antarctic research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, although he expresses shock at the premature onset. He anticipated these outcomes later down the line.

"If penguins face difficulties breeding at a certain location, they may seek alternative sites in subsequent years," he theorizes. While he believes the population could rebound from a couple of negative breeding years, his concern about the future persists.

"If you look ahead, how many appropriate locations will remain?" he questions, posing a crucial inquiry for us all.