In a shocking turn of events, the 2022 breeding season for emperor penguins in Antarctica’s Bellingshausen Sea has ended with the complete failure of four of five breeding colonies. Satellite imagery shows that not a single chick from these colonies survived, marking the first recorded large-scale breeding failure of this iconic species. Scientists warn that if the loss of sea ice due to climate change continues, this catastrophic incident will not be the last.
Unprecedented breeding failure
Cartographer Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey expresses his concern, “We have never seen emperor penguins fail to breed on this scale in a single season. The loss of sea ice in this region during the Antarctic summer has made the survival of displaced chicks unlikely.” This alarming development underscores the vulnerability of emperor penguins to a warming climate. Scientific evidence suggests that such extreme events associated with sea ice loss will occur with increasing frequency.
The role of sea ice in emperor penguin reproduction
Antarctica is surrounded by stable sea ice for most of the year, which forms in April and lasts until January. Emperor penguins, laying eggs in May and June, use this fast ice as a breeding ground. The incubation period lasts about 65 days and the chicks become independent in December-January. However, in early 2022, the fast ice retreated and split, with disastrous consequences for the nesting colonies.
By early summer, Antarctic sea ice extent matched the record low recorded in 2021. The Bellingshausen Sea, located west of the Antarctic Peninsula, was particularly affected, with sea ice extent reduced by 100%. This region is critical for emperor penguins, which return here each year to lay eggs and raise chicks in the same five locations. Unfortunately, by December 2022, four of these locations had disappeared as the ice melted in the waves. Only Rothschild Island, where 650 pairs were breeding, was successful in raising chicks.
Implications for the survival of emperor penguins
Although colonies of emperor penguins are found throughout Antarctica, breeding failure in the Bellingshausen Sea is a major concern. The current trend of decreasing sea ice extent in Antarctica is alarming. Experts predict that if such conditions persist, more than 90% of emperor penguin colonies may be in danger of extinction by the end of the 21st century.
Urgent need to address climate change
The plight of emperor penguins serves as a stark reminder of the need to combat climate change. Loss of sea ice due to rising temperatures poses a serious threat to this iconic species and many others. As Dr. Michelle LaRue, penguin ecologist, emphasizes, “The time to act is now. We cannot afford to lose these incredible creatures that are not only an integral part of the Antarctic ecosystem, but also capture the hearts and imagination of people around the world.”