Bleak future for emperor penguins after breeding failure due to ice melt

Lack of stable ground led adults to abandon colonies, satellite footage has shown

An emperor penguin fledgling old enough to take to the sea to fish. The British Antarctic Survey has warned that ice melt has strongly affected the most recent breeding season. Photo: Thomas Vijayane
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The renowned emperor penguins of the Antarctic face being wiped out due to the rapid melting of the ice shelf, a new report has shown.

The British Antarctic Survey has released research that shows a “clear link” between sea ice melt and “emperor penguin breeding failures” that could lead to a 90 per cent loss by the end of this century.

Using imaging from the Sentinel2 satellite, the investigation found that all but one of the five key penguin breeding sites experienced total breeding failure after sea ice break-up in 2022.

“Forecasts of sea ice loss have painted a bleak picture, showing that if present rates of warming persist over 90 per cent of emperor colonies will be quasi-extinct by the end of this century,” the report said.

“That may represent a snapshot of a future, warming Antarctica where such events become more frequent and widespread, with grave consequences for emperor penguin population viability.”

Emperor penguin colonies depend on stable land-fast sea ice, particularly up to the fledgling periods in December.

The west of the Antarctic Peninsula has been particularly affected by warming, with 100 per cent loss in sea ice extent in 2022.

“Three of these colonies, which were easily visible in late October or early November, were abandoned due to lack of sea ice at the start of the fledging period in early December,” the report said.

It was probable that the adult emperors abandoned the sites shortly after unsuccessful breeding.

“It is likely that the three colonies where rapid loss of fast ice occurred prior to this date will have experienced total or near total breeding failure, as emperor penguin chicks do not develop waterproof feathers until fledging,” the report said.

Though it suggested that some chicks may have survived on grounded icebergs, the BAS warned that the breeding season loss was “without precedent”.

Updated: August 24, 2023, 4:05 PM