August 25, 2023

Not a single emperor penguin chick survived spring in parts of Antarctica

By Laura Chung
August 25, 2023 — 1.00am
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As the world goes through what some scientists believe to be its hottest year on record, emperor penguin populations in the Antarctic are suffering catastrophic losses, with no chicks surviving the spring of 2022 in four of five colonies observed for a new study.

The loss of the chicks coincides with record low sea ice coverage and was predicted as the world warmed, but the collapse in numbers has happened faster and sooner than expected, prompting fears for the future of the animal.

Emperor penguins chicks have struggled to survive in 2022 after record low sea ice coverage impacted their birth rates.Credit: Shutterstock.com

“Emperor penguins have no external threats except climate change and sea ice,” said the study’s lead author, Peter Fretwell, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey.

“They have never been hunted, hardly any contact with humanity. It is purely climate change. You can’t put the ice back. This is a global problem. If we don’t do something we are driving them to the brink of extinction.”

The report, published in Communications Earth and Environment on Friday, examined satellite images in the Bellingshausen Sea in Antarctica between 2018 and 2022 and found that declining sea ice due to climate change resulted in breeding failure last year.

Emperor penguin colonies rely on sea ice between April and January to breed, but any change to their habitat impacts whether chicks develop waterproof feathers, and ultimately survive.

Fretwell said this was the first regional breeding failure of emperor penguins in the past 13 years. He and his team surveyed colonies at Rothschild Island, Verdi Inlet, Smyley Island, Bryan Coast, and Pfrogner Point, where penguin populations ranged from 630 to 3,500.

He said that more broadly, about 30 per cent of emperor penguin colonies across the Antarctic coastline had been impacted by the low sea ice. He added chick births this year could be even worse than in previous years given the record low sea ice driven by record warm ocean temperatures.

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“This is the start of what is going to happen to emperor penguins as we get higher temperatures and lower sea ice,” Fretwell said. “It looks like it will continue to get worse over the coming decades. Our models suggested this would happen over time. But [the results] were sharper and more sudden than previously thought.”

“We really have to see this is a wake-up call,” he said.

“But there is still time to get our act together by reducing greenhouse gases, reducing methane and changing the trajectory we are on.”

Antarctica has experienced back-to-back record sea ice coverage years, with 2023 being the lowest of all. The region currently has 15.12 million square kilometres of sea ice, about 2.54 million square kilometres below the 1981 to 2010 average.

However, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) notes that the loss rate has stabilised since the start of this month.

Scientists have recorded significant decreases in sea ice around Antarctica since 2016. While there have been small rebounds in recent years, they remain far below the record high of 2014. The image below, from the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer, compares sea ice extent in July 2014 to July this year.

Australian Antarctic Program scientist and associate researcher at the University of Tasmania Dr Petra Heil said the research pointed to a massive change underway in the region, which would have longer-term and far-reaching consequences.

For example, less sea ice would expose the Antarctic ice shelves to warmer water, resulting in greater melting and possible sea level rises.

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“It is one more piece of evidence that is, unfortunately, pointing in an unhappy direction,” she said.

Heil added that it was likely sea ice coverage would be below average in the coming years, which would continue to negatively impact Antarctica, as well as the rest of the world.

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Laura Chung is an environment reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.Connect via Twitter or email.
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