A team of scientists has said that the second-largest emperor penguin colony in Antarctica can be officially declared as having been wiped out.
The tragedy started in 2016 when thousands of young emperor penguins drowned in the Weddell Sea. Stormy weather destroyed the sea ice where they were being raised and resulted in the drowning. The colony, located at the edge of the Brunt Ice Shelf, has shown no evidence of reestablishing itself since then.
A team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) noticed the disappearance thanks to satellite pictures who then reported the tragic loss of the Halley Bay colony.
For decades the colony had anywhere between 14,000 to 25,000 breeding pairs. According to Dr. Peter Fretwell and Dr. Phil Trathan, the colony seemed to disappear overnight. At the time the tragedy struck, it appeared as if the chicks had not yet developed the right feathers to swim for their lives after the sea ice broke.
Dr. Fretwell told the BBC: “The sea ice that’s formed since 2016 hasn’t been as strong. Storm events that occur in October and November will now blow it out early. So there’s been some sort of regime change. Sea ice that was previously stable and reliable is now just untenable.”
The BAS team think that the adults have either move to new breeding grounds or stopped breeding altogether after the catastrophic loss of life in 2016.
It’s not yet clear why the sea ice at the edge of the Brunt Ice Shelf hasn’t reformed properly since 2016 but Dr. Trathan believes it could be an “important signal” of what comes next.
He said: “What’s interesting for me is not that colonies move or that we can have major breeding failures – we know that. It’s that we are talking here about the deep embayment of the Weddell Sea, which is potentially one of the climate change refugia for those cold-adapted species like emperor penguins.
“And so if we see major disturbances in these refugia – where we haven’t previously seen changes in 60 years – that’s an important signal.”
Even if the 2016 tragedy hadn’t happened, the colony may have been doomed to perish anyway. The Brunt Ice Shelf is slowly being split apart by a huge crack and could shatter the sea ice in the area.
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