Emperors On Thin Ice

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Penguins in happier days. Photo in public domain. Front photo by Marcel Mochet/AFP/Getty

In what researchers call a "catastrophic breeding failure," a new study says the world's second largest emperor penguin colony, at Antarctica's Halley Bay in the Weddell Sea, has seen virtually no births since 2016 and is on the brink of collapse. "Emperors on Thin Ice," published Wednesday in Antarctic Science, says the "unprecedented" decline stems specifically from a severe storm three years ago, when thousands of chicks drowned after an ice sheet collapsed, and more broadly from the rising seas and melting ice of climate change. Using satellite images, scientists found that in the last couple of years almost nothing has hatched in the colony, which once hosted as many as 25,000 pairs of penguins, or up to 9% of the world's emperor population. “We’ve never seen a breeding failure on a scale like this in 60 years,” said study author Dr. Phil Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey.

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In a sort of "Tale of Two Cities" scenario for penguins, scientists say they also found that during the same three years, the nearby Dawson-Lambton colony has seen a major increase in penguin numbers, suggesting some birds immigrated there from Halley Bay. Still, says Trathan, “Not everybody has gone to Dawson-Lambton yet," and the findings continue to point to massive losses, with some estimates of emperor penguin numbers falling as much as 50-70% before the end of this century. Equally disturbingly, Trathan says he and his colleagues long considered the Weddell Sea, one of the continent's coldest sites, "one of the last places we would see this," a safe refuge from climate change “where in the future you expect to always have emperors.” From penguin ecologist Dee Boersma, the bleak prognosis and too-common refrain: "This is not good news."

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Photo by Bernard Breton

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