Scientists warn 90% of the world’s Emperor penguins could die out in just 80 years if the Antarctic keeps melting at its current rate
- In 2022, four emperor penguin colonies failed to breed in a region of Antarctica
- Scientists say this is due the sheer loss of sea ice linked to global warming
Antarctica’s emperor penguins are on the brink of extinction amid rapid sea ice melt, an alarming study has warned.
Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) claim that 90 per cent of colonies could be wiped out by the end of the century, based on current trends of global warming.
Their warning follows the analysis of stark satellite imagery from 2022, hinting that no chicks survived from four of the five known groups breeding near the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea.
This failure to provide offspring marks an unprecedented first for the region – and experts believe it will only worsen in the coming years.
‘We have never seen emperor penguins fail to breed, at this scale, in a single season,’ said Dr Peter Fretwell, a Geographic Information Officer at the institution.
In 2022, four emperor penguin colonies failed to breed in the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea of Antarctica
BREEDING PERIOD OF EMPEROR PENGUINS
MARCH TO APRIL
Emperor penguins begin a courtship – males and females usually take one partner each year.
MAY TO JULY
In the midst of Antarctica’s winter, the females will lay their eggs on stable sea ice.
While females then head for the sea, males stay to incubate the eggs for a period of 65 to 75 days.
AUGUST TO NOVEMBER
Chicks are usually born during this period and stay close to their parents for several months.
At this time, chicks have fluffy feathers that aren’t waterproof, so they need to steer clear of the sea.
DECEMBER TO JANUARY
Chicks completely ‘fledge’ – replacing their first feathers with water-tight adult feathers.
‘The loss of sea ice in this region during the Antarctic summer made it very unlikely that displaced chicks would survive
‘We know that emperor penguins are highly vulnerable in a warming climate – and current scientific evidence suggests that extreme sea ice loss events like this will become more frequent and widespread.’
Over the past four years, around 30 per cent of Antarctica’s known emperor colonies have been impacted by sea ice loss.
Every year, these penguins rely on stable sea ice to lay their eggs in the midst of Antarctica’s bitterly cold winter stretching from May to July.
While females then head for the sea, males stay to incubate the eggs for a period of 65 to 75 days, meaning they eat no food at all for around four months.
Even once the eggs have hatched, it’s important for chicks to stay on top of the sea ice as their first fluffy feathers are not waterproof.
Usually, the chicks fully ‘fledge’ in December or January as these feathers are replaced with a water-tight plume.
However, Antarctic sea ice extent reached an all-time low in December last year – with the previous record set only a year prior.
This was most extreme in the Bellingshausen Sea – west of the continent – with the region’s emperor penguins badly impacted.
‘Emperor penguins give us a window into this changing ecosystem and are an indicator of the effects that diminishing sea ice will have on the environment,’ Dr Fretwell also told MailOnline.
This failure to breed marks an unprecedented first for the polar region and experts believe it will only worsen in the coming years
December of last year saw Antarctic sea ice extent reach an all-time low, with the previous record set only a year prior
‘These other species will include crabeater seals, Weddell Seals, Minke whales and several species of seabirds. But perhaps more importantly, the sea ice acts as a nursery for Antarctic krill which develops under the ice in their early life stages.
‘Without the sea ice we know that we will have less krill, which will impact not just the sea ice zone, but the whole southern ocean.’
Since December, the problem has only intensified with August’s sea ice extent still far below previous averages for this time of year.
Emperor penguins are hit the hardest by this while others species – such as the Adélie penguin – prefer rocky breeding sites away from the sea.
In light of these findings, Rod Downie WWF’s Chief Adviser for Polar Regions, also told MailOnline: ‘Emperor penguins are heading towards extinction unless we act now.
‘These vulnerable species need sea ice for their breeding success but this year Antarctica has lost a shocking one million square miles of sea ice against the 1981 to 2010 average. I started working in Antarctica in 1997 and I have not witnessed anything like this before.
‘Urgent action to limit average global temperature rise close to 1.5°C, to protect the waters surrounding Antarctica which are teeming with life, and to designate emperor penguins as Specially Protected Species is essential for both the continent and the planet.
‘As glaciers retreat and sea levels rise, the effects of global warming will be felt far beyond the Antarctic itself.’
ARE OTHER PENGUINS IMPACTED?
Loss of sea disproportionately impacts emperors because they are the only Antarctic penguin species to use sea ice as its only habitat.
Others, such as the Adélie penguin, live at a range of latitudes and can even scale rocky cliffs.
However, both types are equally dependent on easy hunting for krill, squid and fish.
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