Penguin catastrophe leaves thousands of chicks dead with only 2 survivors

Credit: KFOR

A penguin colony in Antarctica has suffered a massive breeding failure, with only two chicks surviving the disaster.

Terre Adélie (Adélie Land) is home to more than 18,000 pairs of Adélie penguins, but this year almost all the seabirds’ babies starved to death, a situation one expert described as “Tarantino does Happy Feet.”

The World Wildlife Fund said unseasonably extensive amounts of sea ice around the colony in East Antarctica had forced the adult penguins to travel further than normal to forage for food.

“This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins,” said Rod Downie, Head of Polar Programmes at WWF. “It’s more like ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet’, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land.”

“The impact of this catastrophic event is confined to this specific colony of Adélie penguins, predictions are that the Antarctic will get warmer and this may pose different challenges in the longer term,” Downie added.

It is the second time in recent years that the colony has been badly hit during the breeding season; four years ago no chicks survived when rain followed by a sudden cold snap meant they became soaked and subsequently froze to death.

Map of existing and proposed Marine Protected Areas in the Southern Ocean

Marine sanctuary proposal

Adélie penguins survive on a diet of krill, a shrimp-like crustacean. Experts fear proposals to open the area up to the krill fishing industry would further threaten the local penguin population.

Next week environmental groups and officials will meet in Hobart, Australia, to discuss the creation of a new Marine Protected Area (MPA) for the waters off eastern Antarctica.

The proposed protection zone would render the area off limits to krill fisheries, forming a safer breeding ground for the penguins.

Last year, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) created the largest marine sanctuary in the Ross Sea in Antarctica.

“The region is impacted by environmental changes that are linked to the breakup of the Mertz glacier since 2010,” Yan Ropert-Coudert, lead researcher on the Adélie penguin program at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), said in a statement.

“An MPA will not remedy these changes but it could prevent further impacts that direct anthropogenic pressures, such as tourism and proposed fisheries, could bring.”

Last year, research by oceanographers at the University of Delaware found that 60% of Antarctica’s Adélie penguin habitat may become unsuitable for the birds by the end of the 21st century, because of warming seas and rain.

“Adelie penguins overall are increasing in Antarctica, although there is regional variation; they are decreasing in the Antarctic peninsula region, where temperatures increased by about 3˚C in the second half of the 20th century,” a WWF spokesperson told CNN.

Hidden canyons beneath ice

The news from Terre Adélie came days after data captured by the European Space Agency’s CryoSat and Sentinel-1 satellites uncovered huge canyons below the surface of western Antarctica’s ice shelves.

Ice shelves extend out from areas of land, floating on the sea, the ESA explains; they slow the ice sheet’s movement towards the sea, reducing ice melt.

Earlier this year a massive iceberg, more than three times the size of greater London and weighing more than a trillion tons, broke away from the Larsen C ice shelf in western Antarctica.

Calving is a natural occurrence, but scientists are exploring whether climate change may play a role in speeding up such rifts.

Noel Gourmelen, from the University of Edinburgh said ice melt from the Dotson ice shelf in western Antarctica means 40 billion tonnes of freshwater pours into the Southern Ocean every year.

“Since (the) shelves are already suffering from thinning, these deepening canyons mean fractures are likely to develop and the grounded ice upstream will flow faster than would be the case otherwise,” Gourmelen said in a statement.