Antarctic emperor penguins are on the verge of extinction due to rapidly melting sea ice, an alarming study warns.
British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists say 90 percent of colonies could be wiped out by the end of the century, based on current global warming trends.
Their warning follows analysis of satellite imagery from 2022 suggesting no chicks survived in four of five known flocks breeding near the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea.
This failure to provide offspring is an unprecedented first in the region – and experts believe the situation will only get worse in the years to come.
“We have never seen emperor penguins not breeding, on this scale, in a single season,” said Dr. Peter Fretwell, geographic information officer at the institution.
In 2022, four colonies of emperor penguins failed to breed in the central and eastern sea of Bellingshausen, Antarctica.
REPRODUCTION PERIOD OF EMPEROR MUFFS
FROM MARCH TO APRIL
Emperor penguins begin a courtship display: males and females usually have a partner each year.
MAY TO JULY
In mid-winter in Antarctica, females lay their eggs on stable sea ice.
While the females then head out to sea, the males remain to incubate the eggs for 65-75 days.
AUGUST TO NOVEMBER
Chicks are usually born during this period and remain close to their parents for several months.
At this time, the chicks have fluffy feathers that are not waterproof, so they should avoid the sea.
DECEMBER TO JANUARY
The chicks “flight” completely – replacing their first feathers with waterproof adult feathers.
“The loss of sea ice in this region during the Antarctic summer made it very unlikely that the displaced chicks would survive.
“We know emperor penguins are highly vulnerable to global warming – and current scientific evidence suggests that extreme sea ice loss events like this will become more frequent and widespread.”
Over the past four years, about 30% of Antarctica’s known emperor colonies have been affected by melting sea ice.
Each year, these penguins depend on stable sea ice to lay their eggs in the middle of the freezing Antarctic winter that runs from May to July.
While the females then head out to sea, the males remain to incubate the eggs for a period of 65 to 75 days, which means they eat no food for about four months.
Even after the eggs have hatched, it is important that the chicks remain above the sea ice, as their first fluffy feathers are not waterproof.
Usually, the chicks “flight” completely in December or January, when these feathers are replaced by a tight plume.
However, sea ice extent in Antarctica hit an all-time low in December last year – the previous record having been set only a year earlier.
The situation was most extreme in the Bellingshausen Sea, to the west of the mainland, and the emperor penguins in the region were hit hardest.
‘Emperor penguins give us a window into this changing ecosystem and are an indicator of the effects that diminishing sea ice will have on the environment,’ Dr Fretwell also told MailOnline.
This breeding failure is an unprecedented first in the polar region and experts believe that the situation will only get worse in the years to come.
In December last year, sea ice extent in Antarctica hit an all-time low, with the previous record set only a year earlier.
“These other species will include crabeater seals, Weddell seals, minke whales and several species of seabirds.” But perhaps more importantly, the sea ice serves as a nursery for Antarctic krill that grow under the ice during their early life stages.
“Without sea ice, we know we will have less krill, which will impact not just the sea ice area, but the entire Southern Ocean.”
Since December, the problem has only intensified, with sea ice extent in August still well below previous averages for this time of year.
Emperor penguins are the hardest hit, while other species, such as the Adélie penguin, prefer rocky breeding sites away from the sea.
In light of the findings, Rod Downie, WWF’s chief polar adviser, also told MailOnline: “Emperor penguins are heading towards extinction if we don’t act now.
“These vulnerable species need sea ice to reproduce successfully, but this year Antarctica has lost a million square kilometers of sea ice compared to the 1981-2010 average.” I started working in Antarctica in 1997 and have never seen anything like it before.
“Urgent action to limit the average global temperature increase to nearly 1.5°C, to protect the waters around Antarctica which are teeming with life, and to designate emperor penguins as specially protected species is essential to both for the continent and for the planet.
“As glaciers retreat and sea levels rise, the effects of global warming will be felt far beyond Antarctica itself.”
ARE OTHER PENGUINS IMPACTED?
The loss of the sea has a disproportionate impact on emperors, as they are the only penguin species in Antarctica to use sea ice as their only habitat.
Others, like the Adélie penguin, live at different latitudes and can even climb rocky cliffs.
However, both types are equally dependent on an easy hunt for krill, squid and fish.