‘Catastrophic loss’: Huge colonies of emperor penguins saw no chicks survive last year as sea ice disappears

By Rachel Ramirez, CNN

Updated 11:11 AM EDT, Thu August 24, 2023

CNN — As rapidly warming global temperatures help push Antarctica’s sea ice to unprecedented lows, it’s threatening the very existence of one of the continent’s most iconic species: emperor penguins.Four out of five emperor penguin colonies analyzed in the Bellingshausen Sea, west of the Antarctic Peninsula, saw no chicks survive last year as the area experienced an enormous loss of sea ice, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment.This widespread “catastrophic breeding failure” is the first such recorded incident, according to the report, and supports grim predictions that more than 90% of emperor penguin colonies will be “quasi-extinct” by 2100 as the world warms.The researchers monitored five emperor penguin colonies in the Bellinghausen Sea, ranging in size from roughly 630 pairs to 3,500. Using satellite images from 2018 to 2022, they counted how many of the birds were present at these colonies during breeding season.

01 Antarctic sea ice FILE

Antarctica is missing an Argentina-sized amount of sea ice — and scientists are scrambling to figure out whyThey found that in 2022, four of the colonies experienced “total reproductive failure,” meaning it is highly probable that no chicks survived.Emperor penguins rely on stable sea ice attached to land for nesting and raising their chicks. Eggs are laid from May to June and after they hatch, the chicks develop their waterproof feathers and become independent around December and January.But in 2022, the sea ice broke up much earlier, with the some parts of the region seeing a total loss by November. Researchers monitoring the satellite images said they were used to seeing black blobs on ice during that time of the year, but suddenly there were none.When the sea ice breaks earlier, chicks can fall into the water and drown, said Norman Ratcliffe, co-author of the study and seabird biologist with the British Antarctic Survey. “Or they may drift away on floes and the adults just lose them and then they would starve to death,” he told CNN.

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Categories: Environment

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