Thousands of emperor penguin chicks are dying in Antarctica – and the climate crisis will only make things worse

Emperor penguins in Antarctica.
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Emperor penguin chicks are dying en masse in Antarctica – and, of course, corporate climate criminals will only make matters worse.

On 24 August, researchers released a new study on the impacts of vanishing ice on the iconic emperor penguin. It showed that, in 2022, extensive regional Antarctic ice loss caused “catastrophic” breeding failures in four major emperor penguin colonies. This is the first time on record a study has documented such widespread colony breeding collapse. The new research was published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment.

In addition, the study also highlighted that sea ice loss could drive 90% of emperor penguin colonies to extinction by the end of the century. Specifically, this devastating decline will occur if current levels of global warming continue.

‘Catastrophic’ breeding failures: a taste of what’s to come?

The study focused on the Bellingshausen Sea region, west of the Antarctic Peninsula. The area is home to five emperor colonies. Notably, some colony sites experienced a 100% loss of sea ice, and four of these colonies suffered complete breeding failure.

The authors explained that emperor chicks do not develop waterproof feathers until they fledge at around 5 months. As a result, this means that sea ice has to be stable in order for the chicks to survive. If they’re exposed to the harsh conditions of the water too soon, the chicks may freeze to death or drown.

A separate study from 2019 found that between 2016 and 2019, the second largest breeding colony of emperor penguins also experienced a “catastrophic” breeding failure. Located in the Weddell Sea, the colony was once home to between 14,000 to 25,000 breeding pairs a year. This equated to approximately 5-9% of the global emperor penguin population.

For three consecutive years, strong winds and stormy weather caused the sea ice where the chicks gathered to break up. By 2018, just a few hundred adult breeding pairs were left, and almost no chicks survived.

Read on...

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However, before 2022, scientists had not recorded widespread catastrophic breeding failure across multiple fledgling sites. The new study therefore suggested an unprecedented loss in the emperor chick population.

The Nature researchers noted that emperor penguins will relocate short distances to new colonies when sea ice loss affects breeding. However, this might not be possible in future if breeding grounds become uninhabitable on a larger, regional scale.

Climate crisis-fueled sea loss?

In February, sea ice levels in Antarctica reached their lowest extent in 45 years of record keeping. On top of this, the Communications Earth & Environment study noted that:

Since 2016, Antarctica has experienced the four lowest sea ice extents observed in the 45 year satellite record, with the two lowest years in 2021/22 and 2022/23

Consequently, it acknowledged that:

Although it is difficult to link specific extreme seasons to climate change, a longer-term decline in sea ice extent is expected from the current generation of climate models

Moreover, the study stated that its findings showed a “clear link” between the sea ice loss and the breeding failures of emperor penguins. As a result, it suggested that the emperor penguin chick deaths:

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.

Billionaires steering the climate crisis and penguin catastrophe

Given the role of the climate crisis in the further loss of Antarctic ice – and thus decimation of penguin chick populations – it’s clear who will be to blame. If the thought of even more tiny penguin chicks perishing in the pernicious warming Antarctic wilderness makes you rage, then turn your ire to the big polluters.

Fossil fuel companies and their billionaire profiteers are steering the world to climate ruin. A 2017 study pinned over 70% of global greenhouse (GHG) emissions between 1988 and 2015 to just 100 companies. Chief among them were fossil fuel majors like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP. These companies generated enormous shares of total global emissions.

On top of this, another recent study in Nature Climate Change identified that fossil fuel companies are set to produce coal, oil and gas levels that will push the world past 1.5°c. What’s more, the super-rich that hold investments in these polluting industries also generate staggeringly outsized GHG emissions.

The threat of plastic pollution

What’s more, these corporations are also endangering penguin populations through other profiteering and ecologically destructive pursuits. Oil and gas majors have been ploughing record investment into expanding their plastic production. Consequently, penguins are facing the dual pressures of a warming Antarctic, and a region awash with deadly microplastics.

In 2018, Greenpeace conducted sampling during an Antarctic survey. It found that microplastics and hazardous chemicals contaminated the snow and water of the region. Moreover, a 2022 expedition detected plastic fibres in the air, and right down into the depths of the Antarctic seabed.

A study from 10 August highlighted the devastating cost of this prolific plastic pollution on Antarctic penguins. Analysing the gastrointestinal systems of dead gentoo penguins, researchers recovered significant levels of microplastics. Notably, the research identified much higher levels of contamination than previous studies have shown.

What does the future hold for emperor penguins?

Antarctica’s most iconic species is under threat. Without urgent definitive action, we will see the irreversible decline of the emperor penguin. The effects of the climate crisis, which will inevitably lead to more catastrophic breeding failures like the one we are seeing, are set to become even more extreme. We must hold the corporate climate criminals to account for their actions, before it is too late.

Article written in tandem with Hannah Sharland.

Feature image via Dafna Ben nun/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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