One of Antarctica’s Largest Emperor Penguin Colonies Has Suffered Three Years of ‘Catastrophic’ Breeding Failures
by Brigit Katz Smithsonian.com
Halley Bay has long been home to one of the largest emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, second only to Coulman Island in the Ross Sea. Over the past 60 years that researchers have been observing the Halley Bay colony, between 14,300 and 23,000 pairs have flocked to the site’s sea ice to breed. But since 2016, breeding failures have been “catastrophic” and the penguins appear to have abandoned what was once a reliable haven, according to a new study published in Antarctic Science.
The researchers think the trouble started in 2015, after the strongest El Niño in decades began disrupting Halley Bay’s “fast ice,” or sea ice that is anchored to the shore or ocean floor. Between April and December, the penguins depend on fast ice to provide stable ground for mating, incubating eggs and caring for chicks. But in 2016, reports the BBC’s Jonathan Amos, the ice broke apart before the baby penguins would have developed the feathers they needed to swim. Thousands of them appear to have drowned.
According to the British Antarctic Survey, the ice failed to properly reform in 2017 and 2018, leading to “the death of almost all the chicks at the site each season.” And now, the colony at Halley Bay has largely disappeared.