Thousands of Emperor Penguins die in Antarctic ice breakup


A grim die-off of young Emperor Penguins has been documented in the Antarctic, with as many as 10,000 birds thought to have perished.

The event occurred in late 2022 in the west of the continent in an area fronting on to the Bellingshausen Sea. It was recorded by satellites and has been documented in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

As many as 10,000 young Emperor Penguins are thought to have perished in the ice breakup event last year (Michael Van Woert).

Scientists tracked five different colonies in the Bellingshausen Sea sector. Using the EU's Sentinel-2 satellites, they were able to observe the penguins' activity from the excrement, or guano, they left on the white sea-ice. The early break up of the ice meant the chicks hadn't yet fledged, and it's thought most drowned.

Four of the colonies suffered total breeding failure as a result. Only the most northerly site, at Rothschild Island, had some success. 

Dr Peter Fretwell, from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said the wipeout was a harbinger of things to come. Antarctic summer sea-ice has been on a sharp downturn since 2016, with the total area of frozen water around the continent diminishing to new record lows. Furthermore, the slowness of floes to form in recent months means the colonies will probably not be producing chicks for at least another year.

Dr Fretwell and colleagues said the Emperor Penguins were feeling the impacts of this shift in conditions. Between 2018 and 2022, roughly a third of the more than 60 known colonies were affected in some way by diminished sea-ice extent.



Boutet, A, Fretwell, P T, & Ratcliffe, N. 2023. Record low 2022 Antarctic sea ice led to catastrophic breeding failure of emperor penguins. Commun Earth Environ. DOI: doi.org/10.1038/s43247-023-00927-x