Approximately 10,000 emperor penguin chicks lost their lives due to sea ice meltdown that occurred in the western Antarctic region facing the Bellingshausen Sea. Satellite imagery captured the event.

Dr Peter Fretwell, a scientist from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), was among the first to analyse satellite imagery.

Dr Fretwell described how the sea ice directly beneath the chicks melted and fractured, leading to a chain of events. The fragile feathers of the chicks, vital for insulation during their early swimming attempts, failed to develop due to the absence of stable ice platforms. As a result, these young penguins could not swim proficiently or stay warm in frigid waters. The penguin chicks were likely drowned as they struggled to navigate the waters.

This event is a glimpse into a potential future that awaits many other Emperor Penguin colonies.

According to Dr Fretwell, the loss of sea ice due to global warming has far-reaching consequences, endangering not only the penguins but the broader Antarctic ecosystem as well. Over 90% of emperor penguin colonies are projected to be on the brink of extinction by the end of the century if current climate trends persist.

Sea ice is not just a backdrop for these birds. It is the cornerstone of their existence. Emperor penguins depend on frozen water for their breeding cycle and raising their young. The ice provides a platform for them to hatch eggs and nurture their chicks away from predators. It also offers a reliable platform for chicks to learn to swim and hunt, enabling their transition into the oceanic environment.

Dr Peter Fretwell’s research highlighted the connection between these birds and the frozen water that forms their habitat. As the planet warms and frozen water diminishes, the emperor penguins face an existential threat.

Dr Fretwell’s research findings focused on five colonies in the Bellingshausen Sea region—Rothschild Island, Verdi Inlet, Smyley Island, Bryan Peninsula, and Pfrogner Point. Satellite technology, particularly the EU’s Sentinel-2 satellites, plays a pivotal role in tracking penguins’ behaviour.

The researchers traced penguin activity by identifying guano (excrement) left on the frozen water. This technique enables them to monitor the movements of the penguins across the ice and gain insights into their behaviour.

Emperor Penguins’ lives are intricately choreographed. It revolves around the rhythm of the sea ice. Around March, as the Southern Hemisphere winter approaches, adult penguins move onto the frozen water. This marks the start of their breeding cycle, which involves courtship, copulation, egg laying, egg brooding, and the demanding task of feeding the nestlings over several months. The frozen water stability is crucial at every step of this cycle, ensuring the survival of species.

For young emperor penguins, life begins on Antarctica’s frozen expanse. After months of careful nurturing by their parents, the chicks embark on a transformative journey to adulthood. Around December and January, as the Antarctic summer approaches, these young penguins venture out into the vast ocean, starting their own quests for survival and adaptation in the frigid waters.

The delayed formation of ice floes—a key platform for breeding—casts a shadow of uncertainty over the emperor penguin colonies. The absence of stable sea ice suggests that the affected colonies might not be able to produce chicks for at least another year. The traditional September winter maximum frozen water extent, which provides the necessary conditions for penguin breeding, is projected to plummet to significantly below normal levels.

Between 2018 and 2022, over a third of the known penguin colonies experienced the effects of reduced frozen water extent, characterised by either late ice formation or early breakup.

There had been a slight annual expansion of sea ice until 2016. However, this resilience has given way to a rapid decline since then.

Dr Caroline Holmes, a fellow researcher at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), has delved into the underlying causes of this unexpected sea ice decline. She attributes the current situation to a complex interplay of factors, including warm ocean water anomalies surrounding the continent and specific wind patterns. In particular, the Bellingshausen Sea is marked by winds that push ice towards the coast, obstructing its natural dispersion.

Scientists posit that a significant drop in temperatures could facilitate the recovery of Antarctic. This avenue is contingent on the global community for taking concerted action to address climate change and curb its devastating effects.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) tracks and classifies the conservation status of species worldwide. Currently categorised as “Near Threatened,” the emperor penguins’ situation has triggered a proposal to elevate their status to “Vulnerable.”