Thousands of penguin chicks die as climate change reduces sea ice

Cambridge, UK - Thousands of penguin chicks died in Antarctica last year as a result of the increased disappearance of sea ice. The animals depend on Antarctic sea ice for breeding, and if it breaks up too early, the baby birds don't stand a chance.

Rising temperatures due to climate change are killing penguin chicks.
Rising temperatures due to climate change are killing penguin chicks.  © 123rf/vladsilver

The record low level of Antarctic sea ice at the end of 2023 led to breeding failures in a fifth of the continent's emperor penguin colonies, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

The study was published in the journal Antarctic Science on Thursday, which is also World Penguin Day.

Scientists used satellite data to reveal how early sea ice breakup impacted the penguins' breeding cycle.

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If the sea ice, where a colony breeds, breaks up before the chicks have grown waterproof feathers, known as fledging, the baby birds have little chance of survival.

Chicks forced into the water before growing their waterproof feathers have extremely high mortality rates. Even if they remain on a sheet of floating ice, or floe, that has detached, their chances of survival are slim because their parents have difficulty finding and feeding them.

Fourteen out of 66 colonies were affected by increased melting in 2023, compared to 19 in the previous year, according to the analysis presented in the journal Antarctic Science.

Is there still hope for endangered emperor penguins?

Researchers have observed that some penguin colonies have adapted to the melting ice.
Researchers have observed that some penguin colonies have adapted to the melting ice.  © 123rf/vladsilver

These breeding failures are a direct consequence of the unprecedented loss of sea ice in the region in recent years due to climate change.

Extremely low summer sea ice was recorded in both 2022 and 2023.

It is estimated that there are currently several hundred thousand emperor penguins left in the wild.

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According to forecasts, the charismatic species could be virtually extinct by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current levels.

However, BAS expert Peter Fretwell has hope. Fretwell says there are indications of adaptation, especially in the most severely affected colonies, and the birds may be moving to other areas.

Cover photo: 123rf/vladsilver

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