Researchers say melting Antarctic ice has killed thousands of penguin chicks

Melting Antarctic ice may have caused the deaths of thousands of emperor penguin chicks, according to a new study published in the journal Communications Earth and Environment. File Photo by Ben Holt Sr./NASA

Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Thousands of emperor penguin chicks may have died because of record low ice levels in 2022, according to new research from the British Antarctic Survey.

The research was published in the scientific journal Communications Earth and Environment.

Lead researcher Peter Fretwell said as many as 7,000 chicks likely are to have died as a result of the loss of sea ice. Young emperor penguins lack the feather structure that allows adults to easily float on and navigate water.

"At the beginning of December, the Antarctic Sea extent was tracking with the all-time low set in 2021. The greatest regional negative anomaly of this low extent was in the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea region, west of the Antarctic Peninsula where, during November some regions experienced a 100% loss in sea ice concentration," researchers said in their report.

Emperor penguin colonies are visible from satellites because of the prevalence of guano, or excrement. Researchers used satellite data to assess the loss of the penguins.

"We provide evidence of a regional breeding failure of emperor penguin colonies due to sea ice loss using Sentinel2 satellite imagery. Of the five breeding sites in the region, all but one experienced total breeding failure after sea ice break-up before the start of the fledging period of the 2022 breeding season," researchers said.

According to the report, emperor penguins rely on solid ice for breeding sites, usually mating in March through April and laying eggs between May and June. Emperor penguin chicks typically take about 2 months to hatch.

Researchers said that "if present rates of warming persist, over 90% of emperor colonies will be quasi-extinct by the end of this century."