Scientists: World's Second-Largest Emperor Penguin Colony Has Been Wiped Out

Fguerraz / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Changes in sea-ice conditions made their typical breeding grounds highly unstable according to scientists.

A new report from the BBC reveals that, in 2016, thousands of emperor penguin chicks drowned in Antarctica’s Weddell sea when the ice on which they were living collapsed due to extreme weather. According to scientists from a study published Wednesday, adult birds have shown almost no sign of trying to repopulate the colony situated on the edge of the Brunt Ice Shelf—a pattern that they called “unprecedented.”

The finding was documented by a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) team. Dr. Peter Fretwell and Dr. Phil Trathan picked up on the Halley Bay colony’s disappearance in satellite pictures. Penguin excrement is visible from even 800 kilometers in the sky against the white ice. But the population, which consisted of 14,000 to 25,000 pairs of mates for several decades and making up five to nine percent of the global emperor penguin population, essentially vanished in a matter of days.

The sea-ice broke before the chicks grew the right feathers to be able to swim, and since 2016, the environment still has not recovered.

"The sea-ice that's formed since 2016 hasn't been as strong,” said Dr. Fretwell. “Storm events that occur in October and November will now blow it out early. So there's been some sort of regime change. Sea-ice that was previously stable and reliable is now just untenable."

According to the researchers, the adults have either stopped breeding almost entirely, calling the past three years “almost total breeding failure” for the affected emperor penguins.

Read the full story here.