Thousands of penguin chicks in Antarctica disappeared overnight when storm destroyed their ice shelf

Thousands of penguin chicks in Antarctica disappeared overnight when storm destroyed their ice shelf

THE world’s second largest colony of Emperor penguins has lost almost every chick born over the last three years in a “catastrophic” breeding failure linked to melting ice.
In one shocking environmental tragedy thousands of newborn birds drowned in just one night when a storm destroyed the frozen shelf they were due to be raised on.
AP Hardly any chicks have been born at the world’s second largest colony of Emperor Penguins in the last three years
BBC Thousands of newborn birds drowned overnight when a storm destroyed the sea ice they were due to be raised on
The catastrophe happened  in 2016 in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea, however since then the colony has failed to raise hardly any more chicks,  scientists discovered.
Researchers from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) studied hi-res satellite imagery to reveal the worrying findings, published today in the journal Antarctic Science.
Until recently, the Halley Bay colony was among the largest in the world, with the number of breeding pairs sometimes topping 25,000.
However, the birds are now showing no signs of trying to re-establish a colony and it would probably be pointless for them to try as a giant iceberg is about to disrupt the site.
This shocking failure to raise chicks for three consecutive years is associated with changes in the local sea-ice conditions.
Emperors are the tallest and heaviest of the penguin species and need reliable patches of sea ice on which to bring up their young.
For successful breeding, pairs need need a stable ice shelf to last from April, when they arrive and lay a single egg, until December, when they move to the open sea.
If the sea-ice breaks up too early, the young birds  are not equipped with the right feathers to start swimming which is what appears to have been what happened in 2016.
Many of the Halley Bay penguins have relocated to the Dawson-Lambton colony
The findings are alarming because ice conditions in Halley Bay were stable for at least 60 years and it was widely thought to be shielded from the affects of climate change.
But in 2016, after a period of abnormally stormy weather, the sea-ice broke up in October, well before any emperor chicks would have fledged.
This pattern was repeated in 2017 and again in 2018 and led to the death of almost all the chicks at the site each season.
The colony at Halley Bay colony has now all but disappeared, whilst the nearby Dawson Lambton colony has markedly increased in size, indicating that many of the adult emperors have moved there.
Dr Peter Fretwell, the study’s lead author, said: “We have been tracking the population of this, and other colonies in the region, for the last decade using very high resolution satellite imagery.
“These images have clearly shown the catastrophic breeding failure at this site over the last three years.
“Our specialised satellite image analysis can detect individuals and penguin huddles, so we can estimate the population based on the known density of the groups to give reliable estimate of colony size.”
BAS Penguin expert and co-author Dr Phil Trathan, said: “It is impossible to say whether the changes in sea-ice conditions at Halley Bay are specifically related to climate change, but such a complete failure to breed successfully is unprecedented at this site.

“Even taking into account levels of ecological uncertainty, published models suggest that Emperor penguins numbers are set to fall dramatically, losing 50 to 70 per cent of their numbers before the end of this century as sea-ice conditions change as a result of climate change.”
By using satellite imagery to study the behaviour of this colony and its response to catastrophic sea-ice loss scientists will gain vital information about how this iconic species might cope with future environmental change.
The news was released on World Penguin Day which recognises all 17 species of penguins.
AP The Halley Bay colony was once among the largest in the world with the number of breeding pairs topping 25,000
BBC Birds at the site have not stopped breeding and many have moved to safer grounds

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