Unusual conditions forcing penguins to swim more out to sea led to mass starvation for a penguin colony, with only two chick surviving.

Mass starvation has wiped out thousands of Adelie penguin chicks in Antarctica. Image credits: Yan Ropert-Coudert / WWF.

Since 2010, Yan Ropert-Coudert has been monitoring a colony of now 18,000 pairs of Adelie penguins in East Antarctica. Working with colleagues from France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, he studies how the penguins try to adapt and resist to climate change. This year, they haven’t. Mass starvation completely wiped out a generation.

These penguins mostly survive on a diet of krill — creatures which are highly vulnerable to climate change. As water temperatures rise, krill is heavily affected, and so too are penguins. This leaves them vulnerable to any additional stress; it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge.

This time, it was, ironically, extra ice. Overall, Antarctica has had a record low amount of summer sea ice, but the area around the penguins was an exception. Due to all the extra ice, penguins had a much harder time reaching water and finding food, leaving the chicks vulnerable to starvation and the freezing temperatures. Melting happening elsewhere affected the configuration of the ice. Particularly, the break-up of the Mertz glacier tongue in 2010 has made the ice evolution unpredictable. To complete the gruesome picture, warmer temperatures caused a lot of rain, leaving the chicks wet and more vulnerable to cold.

“The conditions are set for this to happen more frequently due to the breaking of the Mertz glacier in 2010 that changed the configuration of the stretch of sea in front of the colony,” he told AFP. “But there are other factors needed to have a zero year: a mix of temperature, wind direction and strength, no opening of polynya in front of the colony.

It’s not the first thing something like this happened. Four years ago, the same colony, which had even more members then, failed to produce a single chick.

The future of the penguins also doesn’t look that good. Krill fisheries are planned in the area, which will compete with the penguins for food. This is why researchers hope to convince policymakers to protect the area. The head of polar programs at WWF, Rod Downie, said:

“Adélie penguins are one of the hardiest and most amazing animals on our planet. This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins. It’s more like ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet’, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land.”

“The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adélie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable. So CCAMLR needs to act now by adopting a new Marine Protected Area for the waters off East Antarctica, to protect the home of the penguins.”