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Penguins provide a wealth of information on climate change in Antarctica

FILE PHOTO: A colony of gentoo penguins stand on Snow Island, Antarctica, January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Polar ecology researchers Michael Wethington and Alex Borowicz check a rocky outcrop on Antarctica’s Andersson Island for splatterings of red-brown guano that might indicate a nearby colony of penguins through binoculars from an inflatable motorboat bobbing in cold waters.

The news: The birds have evolved into far more than a symbol of the freezing south. Scientists currently use them as indicators of climate change around the South Pole, with certain western parts, such as the Antarctic Peninsula, experiencing rapid warming while East Antarctica stays frigid and ice-covered.

  • Nothing is simple for climate researchers in Antarctica’s remote and cold areas. However, because penguins nest on land and their black feathers and excrement can be seen against the white expanse, they are easier to trace than other species.
  • Simple counts of individual penguins, combined with additional methods such as satellite image analysis, reveal a complex picture, with some penguins labelled “winners” as climate change opens up new habitats, while others are forced to migrate to colder climates.

What scientists say: “We are counting penguin nests to understand how many penguins are in a colony, producing chicks every year, and whether that number is going up or down with the environmental conditions,” said Borowicz, of Stony Brook University in New York.

  • “We can use penguins as a bioindicator to see how the rest of the ecosystem is operating,” said Wethington, also of Stony Brook.

What’s going on: Gentoo penguins, with their vivid red-orange beaks and striking white head patterns, like open water without ice pieces swimming around.

  • During the latter part of the twentieth century, as temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula began to rise faster than nearly anyplace else on the planet, gentoo populations moved southwards, resulting in what some scientists refer to as the “gentoofication” of Antarctica.
  • Gentoo penguins don’t like sea ice. They mostly forage over the continental shelf and don’t go far out to sea.
  • Gentoos have taken advantage of the favourable conditions as sea ice has diminished along the western part of the peninsula. However, conditions for tuxedo-wearing Adelies, who rely on sea ice for mating and feeding, have gotten worse.

What’s important: Although the overall population of Adelie penguins is expanding, certain populations have decreased by more than 65 per cent.

  • The Stony Brook scientists discovered that Adelie colonies near the still-icy Weddell Sea have stayed steady over the last decade during their January visit to the region.
  • The findings, according to Heather Lynch, an ecologist at Stony Brook University who assisted in leading the voyage aboard the MV Arctic Sunrise, underline the region’s conservation relevance.
  • From satellite pictures, a team from the British Antarctic Survey discovered 11 new emperor penguin colonies in 2020, increasing the number of known emperor penguin colonies by 20 per cent.
  • However, since 2016, nearly every chick has died at the Halley Bay colony on the Weddell Sea’s far eastern coast, which has long been home to the world’s second largest emperor penguin colony, with 25,000 breeding pairs assembling each year.
  • Scientists believe the 2016 El Nio event altered the area’s sea ice dynamics, and they are concerned for the penguins as El Nio events become more frequent and severe as a result of climate change.

While the chicks’ deaths were not caused by climate change directly, “there is a climate change aspect to the loss,” according to Peter Fretwell, a geographic information scientist at the British Antarctic Survey.

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