Emperor Penguin Colony in Antarctica Vanishes

Researchers have found almost a "total breeding failure" among Emperor Penguins in Halley Bay, Antarctica.

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Emperor Penguin Colony in Antarctica Vanishes

Emily Sherman, Editor

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According to a recent study, one of Antarctica’s largest populations of Emperor Penguins has yet to recover from its collapse in 2016.  With 10,000 chicks lost, it seems difficult to imagine how this colony will recover.  The observed decline followed the early breakup of ice in the ice creeks that the birds habitually used for breeding.  The initial breakup was associated with a particularly stormy period in September 2015, which corresponded with the strongest El Niño in over 60 years, strong winds, and a record low sea-ice year locally. El Niño brings periods of complex series of climatic changes affecting the equatorial Pacific.

Although, like all emperor colonies, there has been large inter-annual variability in the breeding success at this site, the prolonged period of failure is unprecedented in the historical record.  Satellite imagery indicates that many of the adults relocated; although near, their previous region was considered one of the safest parts of the range.  This raises serious concern, because if the safest breeding grounds are becoming dangerous, penguin decline will continue to be on the rise.

Emperor penguins are the world’s largest penguin breed, and they breed on frozen seawater.  Due to their size, they are unable to climb up icy cliffs and are vulnerable to the warming weather and strong gusts of wind that accompany El Niño.  It’s no surprise that the start of 2015 began with record-low sea ice and storms that brought heavy winds.

Emperor penguins cannot climb icy cliffs and are vulnerable to warming weather and high winds whipping across the ice.

Other scientists have attributed the sharp decline strictly to climate change.  It’s no doubt that this is one of the root causes; Stephanie Jenouvrier, an associate researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, has predicted a 30 percent worldwide decline in the next few decades.  Her devastating prediction does not include the events of the significant 2015 season- the decline is predicted to be even more severe than expected.  However, several researchers have been able to use satellite imagery to map penguin relocation.  Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University in New York, says that the relocation is an extremely hopeful way sign that the penguins can adapt to climate change- short-term.

The Halley Bay decline continues to raise concerns because the decline was rapid, not gradual.  This proves troublesome in the face of climate change because global temperatures seem to show no sign of cooling down.  This is devastating; we can see the world’s ecosystems deteriorating and species disappearing.  It is imperative for humans to unite during the time that we have to save the Emperor penguins and other species.  Climate change leaves permanent, adverse effects on the environment in a global, far-reaching way.