An emperor penguin colony in Antarctica saw thousands of its chicks drown when the sea ice that they were being raised on was fully wiped out due to extreme weather.
The dramatic loss of the young birds was spotted by a team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who revealed that the catastrophe took place in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea in 2016. The huge colony of emperor penguins used to head to the Brunt Ice Shelf to breed their offspring, but it completely collapsed. Adult penguins from the colony reportedly show no sign of attempting to re-establish the population. According to the BBC, scientists also added that it would be pointless for them to try and do so, because a giant iceberg will soon disrupt the location.
The so-called Halley Bay colony was known for being huge, as it has consisted of an average of 14,000 to 25,000 breeding pairs for decades. Scientists could spot the animals’ excrement (or guano) on the white ice through satellite pictures — visible even from 500 miles — and then determine the likely size of their population. But the Brunt locals, which made up from five to nine percent of the global emperor penguin population, basically disappeared overnight. Dr. Peter Fretwell and Dr. Phil Trathan were responsible for noticing the odd event.
Emperor penguins are known for being the heaviest and the tallest of the penguin species, which means they need reliably thick areas of sea ice on which to breed and nest. Their icy platforms in Antarctica must remain stable from April, when they arrive, until December, which is when their chicks mature. But if, for some reason, the ice breaks up too early, the baby birds won’t be equipped with the right type of feathers to help them swim. This tragic occurrence is what appears to have happened in Antarctica, back in 2016. Strong winds caused the Brunt sea ice to break, and it never properly recovered over the next couple of years.
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“The sea ice that’s formed since 2016 hasn’t been as strong. Storm events that occur in October and November will now blow it out early. So there’s been some sort of regime change. Sea ice that was previously stable and reliable is now just untenable,” Dr. Fretwell explained.
While many adults belonging to the Halley Bay colony appeared to have moved to other places across the Weddell Sea — with some nearby colonies seeing a rise in their numbers — this bizarre event illustrates what can happen to the emperor penguin population if sea ice keeps reducing at the current pace. The species faces a 50 to 70 percent decrease by the end of the century, according to computer modeling.