The emperor penguins are suffering another dramatic consequence related to global warming and the consequent melting of the ice. The study published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment and coordinated by Peter Fretwell, head of the British program for research in Antarctica, the British Antarctic Survey, said the record melting of sea ice that occurred in 2022 in the Antarctic Peninsula prevented most of the chicks to reach maturity and have feathers suitable for swimming.
In recent years, the gradual reduction of habitats had prompted the penguins to move their colonies to more inland and sheltered areas, but data from the Sentinel-2 satellite, from the Copernicus program managed by the European Space Agency and the European Commission, indicate that in 2022 in 4 of the 5 emperor penguin colonies present on the coasts of the Bellingshausen Sea, the ice disappeared in a very short time, without leaving enough time for the chicks to develop plumage suitable for water.
2022 and 2023 marked the two negative records of minimum extent of sea ice in Antarctica, a rapid and extensive melting that claimed most of the emperor penguin chicks among its victims. According to researchers, the climate crisis could drive emperor penguins to near-complete extinction within the next 80 years.
How many emperor penguins are left?
Emperor penguins live in Antarctica, around the pole, at latitudes between 66 and 78 degrees south. They generally reproduce on a stable pack not far from the coast. The colonies that are formed therefore look for flat areas sheltered from the winds by rocks or icebergs to settle.
The global population of adult emperor penguins is estimated at 595,000 specimens according to a census carried out by a team of American researchers thanks to satellite images, in turn divided into 44 independent colonies.
About 80,000 pairs can be found in the Ross Sea sector. The largest colonies are located at Cape Washington (20,000-25,000 pairs), Coulman Island in Victoria Land (about 22,000 pairs), Halley Bay, Coats Land (14,300-31,400 pairs), and Atka Bay , in the land of Queen Maud (16,000 couples).
Two other colonies exist on land: one on a land bridge on the Dion Islands in the Antarctic Peninsula, and the other on a promontory of Taylor Glacier in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Isolated specimens have also been observed on the Falkland Islands, Heard Island, South Georgia and New Zealand.