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Penguins are going to extinct, melting ice impacting reproduction

The record sea ice melt experienced in Antarctica in 2022 has produced a reproductive catastrophe in Emperor penguin populations

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
Penguins are going to extinct, melting ice impacting reproduction
  • Emperor penguin populations in the Bellingshausen Sea face a reproductive catastrophe due to record sea ice melt in Antarctica in 2022.
  • British Antarctic Mission (BAS) researchers report that four out of five emperor penguin colonies in the western Antarctic have lost all their chicks.
  • Peter Fretwell's study reveals high risk of no chick survival in four of five known colonies due to premature sea ice loss before feathers are waterproofed.
  • Antarctic sea ice extent hit a record low in December 2022, impacting penguin colonies in the Bellingshausen Sea.
  • Climate change-induced sea ice loss threatens emperor penguin populations, with models predicting severe declines if current warming trends persist.

The record sea ice melt experienced in Antarctica in 2022 has produced a reproductive catastrophe in Emperor penguin populations in the Bellingshausen Sea.

4 of 5 penguin colonies lose chicks, worsening

According to the British Antarctic Mission (BAS) researchers, four of the five colonies of these birds in the west of the Antarctic continent have lost all their chicks. And the situation has only worsened since then.

In a work published this Thursday in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, the team led by Peter Fretwell reports the high probability that no chicks have survived in four of the five known colonies of emperor penguins in the center and east of this region after examining satellite images showing loss of sea ice at breeding sites, long before chicks developed waterproof feathers.

As of early December 2022, the extent of Antarctic sea ice had reached the previous record low set in 2021, the lowest in 45-year record and satellite imagery. The most extreme loss was observed in this region to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula, where there was a 100% reduction in sea ice by November 2022. Before and after images of the region from the satellite speak for themselves.

Described by scientists as a "catastrophic reproductive failure," the year 2022 was a disaster for these colonies. As they say, they kept track of five colonies ranging from approximately 630 pairs to more than 3,000 pairs of penguins. They used satellite images from 2018 to 2022 to count the birds in the colony. Through them, they noted that significant sea ice loss occurred in the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea before the chicks had developed their waterproof feathers.

The ice melt on Smiley Island in December 2022. Photo Credit: Peter Fretwell, British Antarctic Survey

100% loss of sea ice in areas of Antarctica

 According to the study, Emperor penguins need access to firm, stable sea ice to breed and molt, which is when they lose and regain their feathers. Emperor penguins find their preferred breeding grounds between late March and early April. They lay their eggs from May to June, and chicks hatch after just over two months.

These chicks grow up and "fledge" or leave the nest after just over two months, although for that to happen there must be ice. What happened? That sea ice broke up earlier than usual, and the chicks were too young to survive the unstable conditions.

The main reason for this defenselessness is found in its plumage, still not suitable for cold water. As Peter Fretwell, lead author of the study, recounted, These feathers become waterlogged, endangering the chicks if they cannot find stable ground to live on until they are old enough to develop waterproof feathers. The chicks will enter the water and slide or freeze to death even if they do come back out.

While people haven't extensively hunted or overfished emperor penguins, it's evident that climate change poses a significant threat to them. Since 2016, researchers have recorded the four years with the smallest sea ice extent in more than 40 years of satellite records. The 2021 to 2022 and 2022 to 2023 seasons had the lowest sea ice levels on record. 

Emperor penguin colony near Halley Christopher Walton Research Station.

According to the study, recent efforts to predict emperor penguin population trends from forecasts of sea ice loss have painted a bleak picture, showing that if current rates of warming persist, more than 90% of emperor penguin colonies will be nearly extinct by the end of this century.

So what happened to the pups?

C"Fretwell explains that chicks that fall into the water face drowning, unless they possess sufficient size and strength to make it back to an ice flow. If they aren't fully developed and haven't begun growing waterproof feathers, the risk of freezing to death upon submersion remains high, even then." We assume that if the ice breaks under them there will be a total or near-total mortality of the chicks." And, although he does not have exact figures, Fretwell estimates that some 10,000 chicks could have died in this area.

Since 2016, Antarctica has experienced the lowest sea ice extent in four years. From 2018 to 2022, changes affected 30% of Antarctica's 62 emperor penguin colonies due to reduced sea ice. Connecting specific extreme seasons to climate change is complicated, but climate models project a long-term decline in sea ice extent based on current trends.

Antarctic sea ice extent for each year from 1979 to 2023 (red line) Zachary Labe

"We know that emperor penguins are very vulnerable in a warmer climate, and current scientific evidence suggests that extreme sea ice loss events like this will become more frequent and widespread," says the lead researcher. 

What will happen to these groups of penguins from the Bellingshausen Sea that have lost their clutch? 

“Colonies can keep trying to breed in the same place for several years, but if the sea ice continues to be inadequate, they will move away,” Fretwell replies. “We are not sure what will happen. It is very likely that the sea ice in the Bellingshausen Sea will also be very bad, probably worse next season. It is not clear if it remains unsustainable, but sea ice models suggest that we will eventually lose ice in many areas of Antarctica."

Time is not left

In the Bellingshausen Sea, the home of the penguin colonies in this study, sea ice didn't start to re-form until late April 2023. And full speed has made the overall situation this year worse. As of August 20, 2023, sea ice extent was 2.2 million km2 below the 1981-2022 average (17.9 million km2), significantly exceeding the winter record low of August 20, 2023. 2022. This missing area, they indicate from the BAS, is "larger than the size of Greenland, or about ten times the size of the United Kingdom."

Antarctic region and melting due to the thermal anomaly. Fretwell. et al.

"Right now, in August 2023, Antarctic sea ice extent is still well below all previous records for this time of year," said Caroline Holmes, a polar climate scientist at BAS. "In this period when the oceans are freezing, we are seeing areas that are still, surprisingly, largely free of ice." Natural weather patterns such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the strength of the Southern Hemisphere jet stream, and regional low-pressure systems link year-to-year changes in sea ice extent.

“This paper dramatically reveals the connection between sea ice loss and ecosystem decimation,” says Jeremy Wilkinson, BAS sea ice physicist. “Climate change is melting sea ice at an alarming rate. It is likely to be absent from the Arctic in the 2030s, and in Antarctica, the four lowest sea ice extents on record have been since 2016." In his opinion, it is another warning sign for humanity that we cannot continue on this path and that politicians must act to minimize the impact of climate change. 

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