Ice Shelf Collapse Kills Thousands Of Penguin Chicks And Destroys One Of The Most Popular Breeding Grounds On Earth

Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

In a devastating chain of events, the world’s second largest colony of emperor penguins have suffered what appears to be an almost unimaginable breeding failure after penguins failed to raise any new chicks for the third year in a row.

As reported in the journal Antarctic Science, their research revealed that the penguin colony has suffered three consecutive years of almost total breeding loss, something the research say is “unprecedented in the historical record.” The research has been performed by British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who have been watching Halley Bay using satellite imagery.

Researchers have identified a 2016 event as the catalyst for the change in breeding when the northern side of the Brunt Ice Shelf suffered mass breakups which included one of the most populated breeding grounds in the world, Halley Bay. While the shelfs were breaking off, thousands of of emperor penguin chicks were killed but even more impactful, the breakup also forced mating pairs to seek different breeding grounds

Pryor the the disruption, roughly 14,000 to 25,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins (9% of global emperor penguin population) would travel to Halley Bay annually to mate.

Satellite imagery of Halley Bay in 2015 vs 2018. Dark markings show penguin poop and penguins. Via BAS

Since the ice loss though, 2016 and 2017 saw absolutely no breeding while 2018 saw very little. . The study does notes that there’s been a massive increase in penguins breeding in the nearby Dawson-Lambton breeding area but the loss of Halley Bay still has a substantial impact on Emperor Penguin populations.

“We have been tracking the population of this, and other colonies in the region, for the last decade using very high-resolution satellite imagery. These images have clearly shown the catastrophic breeding failure at this site over the last three years,” Dr Peter Fretwell, lead author and BAS remote sensing specialist, said in a statement

“Our specialized satellite image analysis can detect individuals and penguin huddles, so we can estimate the population based on the known density of the groups to give a reliable estimate of colony size.”

Researchers did note that the collapse of the Brunt Ice Shelf is not directly contributed to climate change but rather a particularly strong El Niño in 2015. On the other side though, the researchers noted that many more catastrophic events such as this are going to take place as temperatures around the globe rise and the oceans and glaciers change forever.

Slowing climate change needs to become one of the top priorities for the world in the upcoming decade. We are already seen the devastating impact of it with coral reefs disappearing before our eyes and countless other events. Yet, while there are countless paths to a solution, our partisan politics has put a halt to making the progress necessary to save what soon will be gone.

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