Scientists blame the sharp decline on climate and weather conditions that break apart the “fast ice” – sea ice that’s connected to the land – where the emperor penguins stay to breed. They incubate their eggs and tend to their chicks – one per pair – on ice. After breeding and tending to the chicks, the penguins move to open sea.
In 2016 and 2017, there was no breeding in Halley Bay and last year there was just a bit, the study found.
The nearby Dawson-Lambton breeding area, which had been home to a couple thousand pairs, increased to 11,117 pairs in 2017 and 14,612 pairs in 2018, the study said.
While that’s encouraging, it doesn’t make up for all that was lost at Halley Bay, Trathan said. “Not everybody has gone to Dawson Lambton yet,” he said.
What’s troubling isn’t that part of the colony has moved to Dawson-Lambton, it is that scientists thought of Halley Bay as a climate change refuge in one of the coldest areas of the continent “where in the future you expect to always have emperors,” Trathan said.
David Ainley, a marine ecologist and penguin expert at the consulting firm H.T. Harvey & Associates, worried that some people will be more alarmed than they need to be because many of the penguins didn’t disappear, but just moved. While not as scary as it may sound initially, with climate change “long term, it’s another question as alternate breeding sites likely will become harder to find,” said Ainley, who was not part of the study.