Climate Change Behind the Wipe-Out of Antarctic Emperor Penguins?
Thousands of emperor penguin chicks were drowned in 2015 after the collapse of sea ice in Antarctica. The findings were reported by a team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), in the Antarctica Science journal.
Satellite images reveal that the world’s second largest emperor penguin colony, located at Halley Bay, has suffered three years of almost total breeding failure from 2016-18.
Due to climate change, the Brunt Ice Shelf, where Halley Bay is situated, saw low sea ice extent in the years 2016 and 2017. This was prompted by an early breakout of sea ice in 2015, in the months of October and November, a crucial period in the emperor's breeding cycle. The young ones don’t have the ability to swim that early and drowned in the sea.
WHY DID THE SEA ICE BREAK?
Scientists at the BAS noticed that the first year of poor sea-ice conditions immediately followed the strongest El Niño in over 60 years. It marked a record low sea-ice year for Halley Bay. The average temperature and wind speeds were higher, impacting the breeding cycle of the penguins. While, a direct correlation between the climate and the breeding process is still under study, the observations cannot be neglected.
They also noticed that fast-wind speeds in 2016, changed the nature of the creek in which the ice shelf is located, making it unsuitable for fast-ice retention.
WHY IT MATTERS
The warming temperatures are a cause of concern for the emperor species. Researchers noticed a shift in the population of penguins from Halley Bay to the nearby, Dawson-Lambton colony, possibly due to the changing sea-ice conditions. This suggests a shrinking of spaces for antarctic population.
“Even taking into account levels of ecological uncertainty, published models suggest that emperor penguins numbers are set to fall dramatically, losing 50-70 per cent of their numbers before the end of this century as sea-ice conditions change as a result of climate change,” Trathan added.