Over the weekend, fans were overwhelmed when the highly anticipated Avengers: Endgame finally hit the big screen, wrapping up 10+ years of Marvel universe adventures. In addition, fans were also given the equally anticipated Game of Thrones episode that features the Battle of Winterfell. While both were definitely something that long time fans have been yearning for, there was also an air of somberness, baited breath, and sadness. After all, the tradition of both has been “spoiler alert: everyone dies” and “if you love this character, then, well they’re dead.” Unfortunately for a large number of emperor penguin chicks, they also all died. However, there was no epic battle or snap that cleared the entire breeding ground of its chicks, it was the collapse of an ice shelf.
However, the bad news doesn’t stop there. According to scientists, the area affected is second largest colony in the world of emperor penguins. “This was a big hit for their population and a significant loss. This unprecedented reproduction failure is one that’s decimated the colony. And unfortunately, this is the third year in a row where the penguins have failed to rear any new chicks to adulthood. This was one of their largest breeding grounds; we aren’t sure now about their future. While there’s still plenty of penguins out there, the fact that they haven’t been able to create new generations in this colony is worrisome,” scientists commented on the tragedy.
But just how big is the area that was affected? According to research, each year anywhere from 14,000 to 25,000 pairs of emperor penguins make the annual migration to Halley Bay, located on the Brunt antarctic Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea. Those numbers represent around 9% of the world’s entire emperor penguin population. It’s a significant loss; even though it only accounts for 9% of the population, if the penguins continue to fail year in and year out at one of their largest breeding grounds, we could easily see the population significantly dwindle.
This was definitely not a good way to celebrate World Penguin Day either.
No longer a viable breeding ground
As previously stated, this isn’t the first time that there’s been trouble with the chick population. In 2016 and 2017, absolutely no breeding took place. “We didn’t see any eggs or reproductive behavior from the penguins. It was as if they’d simply congregated for an annual migration but couldn’t remember what the point of the migration was for,” scientists commented. In October or 2016, the Brunt Ice Shelf’s northern side suffered major breakups. This not only killed thousands of chicks who hadn’t even reached the fledgling state, but it also forced the mating pairs to look for better areas in which to breed. A very small amount of breeding took place in 2018 at Halley Bay, but according to scientists, it was some of the lowest numbers they’d seen.
It also seems as if the penguins are privy to the notion that the Brunt Ice Shelf might no longer be a good area for breeding. According to study notes, a huge increase has occurred at the Dawson-Lambton breeding area, which is located close by. According to scientists, the penguin reproduction has exploded here. “Over the last few years we’ve seen a massive increase to the number of breeding pairs present at the Dawson-Lambton breeding area. Since it’s so close to the Brunt Ice Shelf, we believe the penguins have begun choosing the Dawson-Lambton area over the ice shelf. And while this news is certainly encouraging and positive, the Halley Bay disruptions and issues are having a significant impact on the penguin population as a whole.”
There’s also the fact that a staggering number of penguins are still using the unsafe area for occasional breeding attempts or in the very least a meeting ground. For two out of the three years, mates with the potential to produce offspring met at the large breeding ground but didn’t rear any chicks. When they finally did attempt to produce chicks, they were less than successful when the ice shelf collapse. “We need these pairs to travel to safer locations if we’re going to keep the penguin population stable. The fact that they’re not even attempting to reproduce sometimes as well as the fact that the ice shelf is unstable is cause for concern.”
What is the Halley Bay Brunt Ice Shelf?
The Brunt Ice Shelf is located in Antarctica. It borders the costs of Coats Lands, resting between the Stancomb-Wills Glacier Tongue and the Dawson-Lambton Glacier. In addition to being the largest emperor penguin breeding ground, it’s also home to the British Halley Research Station.
The Brunt Ice Shelf is a staggering 492 feet thick. Given its impressive density, you would expect it to hold together much better than it has. However, the ice shelf is home to a number of cracks and ice rumples that are compromising the shelf altogether. The Halloween crack, which was the first one being monitored by researchers, continues to expand eastward towards the McDonald Ice Rumples.
The ice rumples are caused by water flowing over an underwater formation. More than likely, it is due to the fact that there is bedrock present that’s high enough to scrape the underside of the ice shelf. The rock formation staggers the flow of ice and causes pressure to build up, creating rifts and crevasses to form on top.
However, another rift has caught the attention of scientists and is much more concerning. For 35 years, the rift was stable but recently it’s started traveling northward at 2 and a half miles a year. Eventually this rift will meet the Halloween crack as well as the McDonald rumples.
Currently, researchers and scientists around the world are keeping a close eye on the shelf. Two of the largest cracks on the shelf are steadily moving towards each other according to scientists. And when they meet, it’s going to be devastating. When, rather than if, they meet a sheet of ice twice the size of the area of Manhattan will break off. “The piece of ice will be 500 feet thick and more than 660 square miles wide will break off into the ocean. And unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Any day now the cracks can meet,” scientists say. “And the area they are destined to meet at couldn’t be worse. The McDonald Ice Rumples is already very, very unstable.”
Monitoring the population
BAS, or the British Antarctic Survey, has been monitoring the penguin populations of the Halley Bay Colony for some time. They do so using satellite imagery that allows them to not only keep an eye on the population as a whole, but they are also able to monitor the state of the ice shelf as well. “The satellite imagery has been instrumental in helping us track the colony here,” BAS remarked. Unfortunately for the past three years, the imagery has provided nothing short of depressing news.
“Using high-resolution satellite imagery, we’ve been monitoring the population of this colony as well as others in the region for the last ten years of so. The last few images we’ve gotten of the areas show what we consider to be catastrophic reproduction failure at this specific site. The last three years can atone for our findings and it’s unnerving to say the least. You grow attached to these little guys over the years. And you want to see them do well not only as someone who has come to invest a lot of time in the penguins, but also as a scientist who is concerned for their futures.”
According to Dr. Peter Fretwell, who is a BAS remote sensing specialist and the lead author, the satellite imagery is incredibly sensitive and accurate. “Our satellite imagery analysis can easily identify single penguins as well as huddles. Using this information, we can guess the population’s size based on our knowledge of the group’s density. We use this to come up with a reliable and accurate colony size estimate.”
Is climate change to blame?
Climate change has been a hot button topic for some time now. So when the Brunt Ice Shelf collapse, decimating the emperor penguin chicks, many started pointing their fingers at global warming.
According to researchers though, the collapse of the shelf isn’t directly linked to climate change. Instead, they believe that it probably corresponds to a strong El Nino warming phase that took place in 2015. “This particular El Nino brought significant warm airs to the area. We believe that this event caused the ice shelf to become compromised,” researchers say. However, this isn’t to say that in the future global warming can cause more tragic events like this to happen.
Unfortunately, this won’t be an isolated incident according to those same researchers. They anticipate more catastrophes like this as the sea ice loss progresses due to global warming. “Right now, it’s impossible to say if the changes in the sea ice at Halley Bay are related to global warming, but one thing is certain: this was an unprecedented attempt at breeding at the site. We saw a 100% loss,” said Dr. Phil Trathan, who is the study co-author and penguin expert at BAS.
Dr. Phil Trathan is also concerned about a significant loss of numbers in the emperor penguin colonies. “We’re taking into account ecological uncertainty, but according to our current models, we’re going to see the emperor penguin population decrease significantly. We’re expecting to see a loss of 50-70% of their numbers before the end of this century. Especially if the sea ice conditions continue to decrease as a result of global warming.”
Dr. Trathan also points out that other breeding locations will also be affected by global warming. “As temperatures continue to rise, we’ll see other ice shelves and breeding grounds become compromised. Right now, the penguins still have many other viable options besides the Halley Bay Ice Shelf, but we imagine that over time those will become just as unstable. It’s definitely concerning and we’re worried for the future of these penguins.”
Interesting facts about emperor penguins
With all of the sadness surrounding the penguins, their colonies, and the tragedies that took place over the weekend in the Marvel Universe as well as the Game of Thrones Universe, we decided it would be nice to take a little break. Here are some fun facts about these cute little tuxedo-wearing birds.
- Emperor penguins are actually the largest of all penguins. They are around 3.77 feet; the same height of a six year old.
- Emperor penguins call Antarctica their exclusive home. Here, the temperatures can reach a chilling -76 degrees Fahrenheit at their lowest.
- So how do they stay warm in these kinds of conditions? For starters, they store large amounts of body fat that keeps them warm as well as numerous layers of feathers that are shaped like scales. This design helps block out the wind and keep warmth in. They also huddle in large groups to keep themselves as well as others warm.
- In April, the penguins congregate together to produce offspring. The female lays her egg in June and then it’s up to the male penguin to take care of it. She passes the egg onto the male and then heads off to the ocean (sometimes as far as 49 miles) to find food.
- The males keep the egg safe and warm by balancing it on their feet. They also cover it with a brood pouch, which is a long tuft of feathered skin. They’ll remain in care of the egg until the females return.
- In July, the females return with bellies full of food. It is this food that the females will regurgitate up for the chicks to eat once they hatch. They then take over the care of the egg and the males are allowed to leave in search of food.
- It will take two months total for the egg to hatch. Once it hatches, both the male and the female penguin will care for the chick equally. They will take turns keeping it warm and safe while also feeding it.
- Penguins can dive as deep as 546 yards under the water and can hold their breath for around 22 minutes while they’re under.
Emperor penguins are also serial monogamists. Each year, they will take on only one mate. They will stay with that mate for the entire year.