Human-caused global warming, which is driven by fossil fuel consumption, is increasingly resulting in severe environmental effects, notably the rapid decline in sea ice. This poses a direct threat to several species that rely on sea ice, like emperor penguins.
A recent study reveals that due to record-low sea ice levels in 2022, thousands of emperor penguin chicks from four colonies in Antarctica suffered a “catastrophic breeding failure.”
Stable land-fast sea ice is vital for these penguins to breed, molt, and forage. However, significant sea ice loss in the eastern and central parts of the Bellingshausen Sea led to the probable demise of all chicks from four of the five studied colonies, as they hadn’t yet developed waterproof feathers to withstand the early ice breakouts.
Stable sea ice from April to January is essential for the emperor penguins to breed, with their breeding cycle running from May to January. The December 2022 sea ice extent equaled the previous record low from 2021, with the Bellingshausen Sea area experiencing a total loss in November 2022.
Unfortunately, this scale of breeding failure for emperor penguins is unprecedented. Given the increasing frequency of extreme sea ice loss events due to warming, emperor penguins are highly vulnerable.
Since 2016, Antarctica has seen the lowest sea ice extent in its 45-year record, with the most extreme reductions in 2021 and 2022. Almost a third of the 62 known emperor penguin colonies were affected by this loss between 2018 and 2022.
Previously, these penguins have adapted by moving to more stable locations. However, when an entire region is affected, they have nowhere to go. While they’ve faced minimal human-made threats in the past, climate change is now their primary existential threat.
Predictions indicate that if the current warming trend persists, over 90% of their colonies will be quasi-extinct by the century’s end.
Addressing this issue demands behavioral changes, notably reducing fossil fuel consumption. Recent satellite imagery revealed five penguin colonies that had consistently returned to the same breeding locations, with only one previous breeding failure in 2010.
Dr. Jeremy Wilkinson of the British Antarctic Survey emphasized the need for immediate action to mitigate climate change and its impacts.