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Climate change killed thousands of emperor penguin chicks in Antarctica last year

About 10,000 emperor penguin chicks drowned late last year as the sea ice melted beneath their feet, says a new report

Emperor penguins need stable sea ice for successful breeding.
Emperor penguins need stable sea ice for successful breeding. (Wikimedia Commons)

Climate skeptics often question the many warnings from scientists about the catastrophic impact of Antarctica’s ice melting, but the recent death of emperor penguin chicks due to the loss of sea ice should come as a wake-up call. Up to 10,000 emperor penguin chicks are believed to have drowned in late 2022 as their breeding grounds in Antarctica melted beneath their feet, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey have found.

“I think it’s time people realised they are living in the future that scientists warned about for years. The catastrophic events are going to get progressively worse. (Yet) people tend it shut it out… so it is crucial to understand how to change the messaging around the climate crisis,” says Minal Pathak, senior scientist at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Researchers from the British Antartic Survey say that due to the largescale loss of sea ice, there is a high probability that no chicks survived in four of the five known emperor penguin colonies in the the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea. The area saw 100% sea ice loss in November 2022. The study, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment earlier this week, stated that the sea ice started melting before the chicks developed waterproof feathers, causing them to drown. 

Ice plays a crucial role in ensuring successful breeding of the species. Emperor penguins lay their eggs and raise their chicks on sea ice. They move to the breeding sites from late March to April and lay eggs from May to June. The eggs hatch after 65 days, and chicks grow and develop the waterproof feathers needed for survival during December and January, according to the report. 

Also read: Pacific coral reefs show increase in climate resistance: Study

"This is the first major breeding failure of emperor penguins across several colonies due to sea ice loss, and is probably a sign of things to come," the study's lead author and a researcher at the British Antarctic Survey Peter Fretwell told AFP. "We have been predicting it for some time, but seeing it happening is grim.” 

Early in December 2022, when the emperor penguin chicks began to develop feathers, known as the fledging period, the sea ice across Antarctica touched an all-time low, according to the report. 

Emperor penguins, considered “an iconic species” in Antarctica, have faced sea ice loss before and adapted. In 2016, emperor penguins from Halley Bay relocated their colony to Dawson Lambton Glacier when the ice melted. Emperor penguins are known to adapt to breeding failures caused by localised sea ice loss by moving to alternative, more stable sites, but when the sea ice loss affects an entire region, as it has this time, the relocation is not likely to be feasible, said the researchers.

Satellite footage from the area taken earlier this year shows that in July 2023, sea ice was 13.5 million, the lowest observed for this time of year since the satellite record-keeping began in late 1978, according to Nasa. 

“While it’s difficult to predict the exact impact of climate change on Antarctica, it is reasonable to assume that extreme weather events are likely to increase as global temperatures rise. If there is extreme heat and we are constantly facing the consequences, why isn’t it making people angry?” says Pathak, who is also an associate professor at the Global Centre for Environment and Energy at Ahmedabad University. 

Global warming has made Antarctica more vulnerable to extreme events and the impact is "virtually certain" to get worse, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science in early August.

“Sea ice is sensitive to warming temperatures—a small change from just below to just above freezing temperatures is the difference between ice and ocean. So, it is an early indicator of change in the environment,” Walt Meier, senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, told CNBC.

“It’s strange that penguins are the ones to wake us up. We tend to pay attention to popular species even though many other species of animals and birds have been significantly hit or gone extinct because of the climate crisis. Most of them don’t receive attention. There are so many people across the world suffering the consequences of climate change,” says Pathak.

The consequences and adverse events are going to worsen, says Pathak. “We can’t have incremental change anymore; it has been radical. There is a need to urgently and radically transform how cities are built, the food we eat, and our lifestyles,” she says.

Also read: How children are engaging in climate action through poetry and theatre

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