Emperor penguins need ice on which to live. Emperor penguin colonies live on ice. They lay their eggs on ice and feed their chicks on ice.
Scientists tell us that this vital element of the emperor penguin’s habitat is disappearing from parts of Antarctica which removes the possibility for the Emperor Penguin to survive.
Scientists study emperor penguins from satellite observation because they are so remote. They’re not seen that often but scientists can see their excrement.
Four colonies totally collapsed in the west of Antarctica because of large areas of melting ice. The collapse in the colony led to a collapse in the survival of this year’s chicks.
It is believed that the chicks got wet and turned into “little ice cubes”. That sounds horrible but emperor penguin chicks’ downy feathers are not waterproof. If there is no ice to live on, they either drown or freeze to death when they fall into the sea according to a report by The Times newspaper.
Tom Whipple, Science Editor of The Times tells us that emperor penguins cannot function without sea ice. He quotes Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey who said:
Their whole life-cycle revolves around sea ice. They moult on it. They forage under it. Critically they also breed on top of the ice. The entire breeding cycle between April and December is on the sea ice.Fretwell
During six months of the Antarctic winter, the cycle is hidden but when the sun rises satellite images are able to show the tell-tale dark streaks indicating the presence of an emperor penguin colony.
Things have gone wrong in the Bellingshausen Sea which is to the west of Antarctica. Fretwell said, “Every week we saw that the sea ice was breaking off much, much earlier than it had previously.”
Fretwell has written a report and his paper is published in the journal Communications Earth and Environment. It recounts how the ice disappeared well before the chicks were fledged.
He added that, “The chicks are little downy balls of feathers. They are not waterproof. If they go in the water, there are often too small to get back up so they’ll drown. If they do get up, they’ll freeze to death.”
The adults will try to procreate again in 2023 but if they fail, they may try a Plan B. When this happens, Fretwell tells us that they’ll try and move away to the nearest colony that has stable sea ice.
It is believed that the disappearance of the sea ice in the west of Antarctica is linked to the La Niña cycle together with strong south-westerly winds.
To those causes we must add rising temperatures due, it is believed, to global warming. Fretwell believes that we are “witnessing a reckoning” according to Tom Whipple.
Fretwell further added that, “This was what we expected but we held out hope that our models were going to be wrong. They’re not, which is rather shocking.”
Update: The Telegraph reports that 10,000 chick have died.