Antarctica’s second biggest breeding ground for emperor penguins is now almost vacant, according to a new study in Antarctic Science.
Scientists had assumed that the area near Halley Bay would remain a refuge for the penguins long into the future, shielded from the disruptions of climate change.
Just a few years ago, penguin couples had been hatching up to 24,000 eggs annually on the stretch of ice, accounting for 8% of all emperor penguin births. For the past three years, the polar birds have hatched almost no eggs in the area, a development that has alarmed scientists.
“We’ve never seen a breeding failure on a scale like this in 60 years,” study author Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey, told the Associated Press. “It’s unusual to have a complete breeding failure in such a big colony.”
The team of researchers discovered this precipitous decline by analyzing satellite data of the region. They saw that “fast ice,” or ice connected to land, was melting unusually fast beginning in 2016, which the team attributed to the powerful El Niño storm of that year, which caused temperature spikes in marine environments around the world. Over the next two years, the ice failed to return to previous levels.
The emperor penguins relied on this fast ice to breed and look after their hatched eggs. When it began to disappear, the penguins likely deemed the area unreliable and sought new breeding grounds.
Instead, the penguins traveled to the Dawson-Lambton colony, 55 kilometers to the south. While egg hatchings have risen in this colony, representing the migration, overall birth rates in the region remain down.
Animals living in the polar regions have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years because their habitats are on the frontlines of climate change. The North and South poles are warming twice as fast as the rest of the world and Antarctica is losing 250 billion tons of ice per year.
As the ice retreats, penguins are losing crucial sources of food and are having trouble breeding. These trends are expected to intensify in the decades ahead as Antarctica declines further. As ice melts it creates a feedback loop that accelerates the loss of glaciers — water absorbs more sunlight than ice, so as ice turns to water, more sunlight and heat are transferred to the remaining ice.