Adelie Penguins in East Antarctica “Suffer Catastrophic Breeding Event”
© 2017 by Linda Moulton Howe
“We've witnessed a catastrophic breeding failure at one Adelie
penguin colony on Petrel Island in East Antarctica in 2017.”
- Rod Downie, Director, WWF UK Polar Program, London, UK
Adelie penguin parent next to chick that died of starvation in 2017, in Terre Adelie
region in East Antarctica on Petrel Island. Only two penguin chicks survived from
a colony of 36,000 adult Adelie penguin pairs. Image by WWF UK.
Petrel Island is a rocky island 900 miles long and 45 miles in elevation, which is
the largest feature in the cluster of islands at the southeastern end of Geologie Archipelago.
October 26, 2017 Petrel Island, East Antarctica - Many Americans in just the past few weeks — ranging from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to Florida, Houston and Santa Rosa, California — are reeling from unprecedented rainfalls, intense hurricane winds, floods and fast spreading wildfires.
Only five years ago on November 10th, 2012, the Central Intelligence Agency in collaboration with other U. S. intelligence agencies and the National Academy of Sciences released a report about the increasing threat to national security that is expected to keep emerging from global climate change. The report said, “It is prudent for security analysts to expect climate surprises in the coming decade, including unexpected and potentially disruptive single events … and for them to become progressively more serious and more frequent thereafter, and most likely at an accelerating rate … that will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global systems to manage.”
Right now, the fastest rate of Earth warming is at the Arctic North Pole. But at the Antarctic South Pole, there is both accelerating ice melts and increased ice build up. That contradiction emerges because even in Antarctica, the air is warming, can hold more moisture, which means more snow in some places — both consequences of climate change.
That paradox of ice build up in East Antarctica while ice is melting fast on West Antarctica is presenting a new challenge to penguins such as the Adelie that have more than 200 colonies. But because of some unusual ice build ups, one colony on Petrel Island in East Antarctica has suffered two massive chick die-offs in only the past four years. The reason is that parents have had to go much longer distances across more and more ice to reach water and krill shrimp food for their baby chicks. All those deserted chicks have starved to death now twice — once in 2013 from more than 20,000 adult penguin pairs — and again a couple of months ago in 2017.
This time, only two penguin chicks survived from a colony of 36,000 adult Adelie penguin pairs. The location is the Terre Adelie region in East Antarctica. One scientist who has spent the last fourteen years with the British Antarctic Survey, including nearly three years living and working on the ice in the Antarctic, is Rod Downie who now heads the WWF UK polar program.
Adelie penguin parents with young chick, which depends upon the adult parents for krill shrimp
food after hatching in order to survive. Climate change has caused unusual ice build-ups that
cause the parents to have to go further to reach water, leaving the unprotected chicks behind
that starve to death in the wait for the parents to return with food. Image by WWF UK.
Rod Downie, Director, WWF UK Polar Program, London, England: “We've witnessed a catastrophic breeding failure at one Adelie penguin colony on Petrel Island in East Antarctica in 2017. And it's a colony that we know well. We've been supporting research with the French Antarctic program there for the last seven years. This year of 2017, just over 18,000 pairs of Adelie penguins attempted to breed at the colony. And out of those 18,000 pairs, just two chicks survived. The reason for this is that there was very extensive local sea ice this year at what was a very critical part of the breeding season. It happened right at the end of the breeding season when the adults were going out to look for open water to go out and feed on krill. And they feed on krill, and they bring that krill back to feed their chicks.
Adelie penguins jumping off ice into waters to find krill shrimp for food to take
back to their new baby chicks. Image by WWF UK.
So the adults had to travel further, and they were therefore expending more energy, and eventually they simply had to abandon their chicks. But the good news is that those same birds will return to the same colony next year, and they will try all over again. This was just one of about 250 Adelie penguin colonies that surround Antarctica.
BUT I UNDERSTAND THAT A SIMILAR DIE-OFF ALSO HAPPENED FOUR YEARS AGO IN 2013 WHEN ALL OF THAT SAME COLONY'S ADELIE PENGUIN CHICKS DIED.
Yes. That's correct. During that year of 2013, there were about 20,000, so just over 20,000. In fact, it was 20,196 pairs of Adelie penguins attempted to breed at that same colony. And as you say, there were no chicks at all produced that year. So that's been two catastrophic events at this one colony in the space of four years.
Could Antarctica Lose Most
of Its Penguins to Climate Change?
New feathers on Adelie
penguin chicks (Pygoscelis adeliae) are not fully waterproofed
and so the chicks can die from hypothermia as well as starvation if their parents can't
get to krill shrimp in the ocean and return to feed the chicks. Image © 2016
by Michael Melford, National Geographic Creative.
AND IT MAKES ME WONDER, HOW DOES THE ADELIE PENGUIN POPULATION CONTINUE IF THE GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOW MAKING IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR THE ADULT PARENTS TO FEED THESE CHICKS?
Well, generally speaking, Adelie penguins are actually doing pretty well in Antarctica. We believe there's about four million pairs in total. But there are very significant regional differences in what's happening to Adelie penguins. So, in parts of Antarctica where climate change has been well-established for some years, and I'm thinking in particular about the Antarctic peninsula region, Adelie numbers have declined. However, in East Antarctica, Adelie penguin colonies are generally doing pretty well.
CAN YOU ADDRESS THIS PARADOX THAT IN GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE IN WHICH THERE IS WARMING WITH ACCELERATED MELT IN SOME PARTS OF THE ANTARCTIC ICE, AND THEN WHY IS IT THAT INCREASE IN ICE CAN BE HAPPENING REALLY BECAUSE THERE IS A WARMING CLIMATE WITH WARMER AIR TEMPERATURES, MORE WATER IN THE ATMOSPHERE BECAUSE A WARMER ATMOSPHERE CAN HOLD MORE WATER, AND THAT THIS ODD PARADOX EXISTS THAT ENDS UP CAUSING THESE DEATHS OF SO MANY CHICKS?
Yes, so overall, we have seen a slight increase in the extent of Arctic sea ice over the last decade or so, although there are big regional differences there, but certainly the scientists are putting that down, broadly speaking, to natural variation. However, sea ice is predicted to decline across Antarctica this century under most climate scenarios.
WELL, CAN YOU HELP THE AUDIENCE UNDERSTAND THAT WHERE THESE ADELIE PENGUINS HAD COMPLETE DIE-OFF OF EVERYTHING EXCEPT TWO CHICKS THIS YEAR, WOULD YOU GIVE THE CONDITIONS IN WHAT IT IS THAT THE PARENTS ARE UP AGAINST TO FEED THEIR CHICKS THAT LEADS TO ALL THIS DEATH?
Yes. At this colony, there was extensive sea ice at a critical part of the breeding season. So the adult birds had to travel further across the sea ice to find open water.
AND WHAT MADE THE ICE EXTEND MORE?
Ice is a very dynamic thing. It will change, and it will move over time. And there's very definite variation from year to year.
THE PENGUINS WOULD BE THERE AND USED TO BEING ABLE TO FEED THEIR CHICKS. WHAT HAPPENED THAT MADE THIS ICE EXPAND SO MUCH THAT THEY COULD NOT GET BACK TO FEED THEIR CHICKS?
Right around the coast of Antarctica, sea ice expands and contracts every year. That's what sea ice does. Sea ice is very dynamic. It was just a circumstance of this year that at that point where the Adelie parent birds were heading out to sea, they simply couldn't find sufficient open water to get into to feed on the krill. So we're putting it down to a natural occurrence.
BUT IT HAPPENED FOUR YEARS AGO, TOO.
That's absolutely correct.
SO WHAT IF THERE IS A PATTERN NOW, AND WHAT HAPPENS TO THE ADELIE PENGUIN ADULTS?
Well, the Adelie penguin adults survived this season, so they will come back again next year. The same adult birds will come back to the same colonies to try to breed again. And in the previous year, they had a successful breeding season at this colony.
Adelie penguin parents standing over newborn chick and egg. If the parents can't bring enough
krill shrimp from waters to feed the chicks, the weak babies will die, which has now happened
in 2013 and 2017 in one of the penguin colonies on Petrel Island, East Antarctica. The
problem is unusual ice build up that makes the trip to the ocean waters longer.
Image by Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation.
YESTERDAY, AS I UNDERSTAND IT, THERE WAS A MEETING OF THE COMMISSION FOR THE CONSERVATION OF ANTARCTIC MARINE LIVING RESOURCES (CCAMLR) MADE UP OF 25 MEMBER STATES AND THE EUROPEAN UNION, AND THAT THEY WERE MEETING TO CONSIDER A PROPOSAL FOR A NEW MARINE PROTECTED AREA FOR WATERS OFF OF ANTARCTICA JUST BECAUSE OF THE MASSIVE CHICK DIE-OFF OF THE ADELIE PENGUINS.
Well, that's correct. CCAMLR is indeed meeting this week and next week, and there's a proposal for a marine protected area, which is on the table. It's been on the table for a number of years. So what we hope to achieve with a marine protected area is that we can remove any other pressures on those Adelie penguins as they strive to recover from this event. So for example, with a marine protected area, we can assure that fisheries for krill, which is a small shrimplike crustacean, it's the main food source for Adelie penguins, that the krill fishery does not overlap with the same areas that these Adelie penguins go to breed. This week, WWF and many other stakeholders and many governments from around the world will be negotiating for this protected area for East Antarctica, and the hope is that will help to protect the amazing wildlife that we have down there, including Adelie penguins, but also Emperor penguins and thousands of other species.
BUT IT IS NOT GOING TO CHANGE THE DYNAMICS OF THE ICE EXPANSION OR CONTRACTION THAT HAS CAUSED THE DEATH OF ALL OF THESE CHICKS, TWO YEARS, 2013 AND 2017.
That is absolutely correct. But what it will do is remove any other human pressures on those birds as they strive to recover from those incidents.
BUT IF WE'RE UP AGAINST PERSISTENT AND ONGOING CLIMATE CHANGE FOR THE REST OF THIS CENTURY, WHAT DO YOU FORECAST WILL BE THE FATE OF LIFE IN ANTARCTICA?
We need to remember that these are sea ice ecosystems, so these Adelie penguins and other species of the ice evolved over millennia to survive in and around sea ice. They need sea ice as a critical part of their entire life cycles. So certainly a future with less sea ice is not a great future for Adelie penguins.
AND TOO MUCH SEA ICE KILLS THE CHICKS.
That's absolutely correct. It's a delicate balance. So both too little ice and also too much ice can be bad for Adelie penguins.
YOU'VE BEEN WORKING ON THESE ISSUES FOR A LONG TIME. WHAT IS YOUR HONEST PERSPECTIVE OF THE REST OF THE 21ST CENTURY IN RELATIONSHIP TO THE FACT THAT I THINK IT'S INDISPUTABLE IN TERMS OF SCIENCE DATA THAT WE ARE ON A TRACK OF GENERAL PERSISTENT WARMING AROUND THE ENTIRE GLOBE?
Yes, well, I'm very optimistic that the Paris Climate Agreement will be honored, and that we can tackle climate change head-on. We have to for future generations.
IF WE DON'T, AND THE UNITED STATES, UNFORTUNATELY, HAS PULLED OUT OF THE PARIS ACCORD, WHAT DO YOU THINK IS A REALISTIC PROJECTION OF HOW CLIMATE CHANGE IS GOING TO THREATEN HUMANS AS WELL AS ADELIE PENGUINS.
Well, I hope common sense will prevail. We know that we need to tackle climate change. We know that it's one of the greatest threats to our planet and to biodiversity globally.
WHAT IS YOUR NEXT WORK NOW WITH THE ADELIE PENGUINS?
We will keep on monitoring the population of this colony on Terre Adelie on Petrel Island. We're also tracking the penguins to see where they go to feed, and that helps us in developing these marine protected areas to identify biological hotspots in the Southern Ocean which are really critical for protection.
AND HOW DO YOU TRACK?
Minute, very lightweight tracking devices, like a small GPS that's attached to the penguins.
HOW DO YOU DO THAT? WHERE DO THEY PUT THE TRACKING DEVICES?
Just on their backs. They're attached to the feathers. They're either recovered when the adult bird comes back to the colony, or they're simply lost when the penguin molts its feathers. Penguins go through an annual molt where they lose their feathers.
AND HOW DOES THIS TRACKING HELP IN TERMS OF WHETHER OR NOT EACH YEAR NOW THERE'S GOING TO BE VAST CHICK LOSS OVER AND OVER?
What it can do is help us to understand what are the really important places that the penguins go to feed, and we can use that information when we're designing marine protected areas and when we're managing fisheries. I think it's really important that we are communicating to the rest of the world what is happening in Antarctica. That helps us to understand the areas that are really critical for the penguin populations.”
For further information about Earth creature die-offs, please see reports in the Earthfiles Archive organized in chronological order from 1999 to 2016 ongoing of which a few are listed here.
"Antarctica Could Lose Most of Its Penguins to Climate Change," June 29, 2016, National Geographic: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/06/adelie-penguins-antarctica-climate-change-population-decline-refugia/
WWF UK: https://www.wwf.org.uk
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: http://www.iucnredlist.org