Penguins on thin ice

Climate change can have a devastating effect on animals that have spent thousands or millions of years adapting to a particular lifestyle. In Ireland, the weather is always changeable – an early spring might encourage birds to nest too soon, only for their chicks to be killed off by snow in April. Our birds can usually try again, but there are some animals whose lives are already so precarious that any changes to their environment will be disastrous. 

In 2022, record low sea ice extent in the Bellinghausen Sea, west Antarctica, led to the catastrophic breeding failure of emperor penguins. The ice melted before the immature birds had time to grow their waterproof adult plumage, and thousands died. Picture fat fluffy chicks, the type beloved by children and animators, floundering helplessly in freezing water. 

Colonies of emperor penguins have been lost before due to local changes in sea ice duration and distribution, but this disaster – four colonies wiped out – is the first recorded breeding failure clearly linked to large scale contractions of sea ice. Emperor penguins need the solid, flat expanses of ice that builds up around the edges of islands and ice shelfs in the Antarctic winter; they are too clumsy to do much climbing, and the farther they are from the sea, the harder it is to get food for their chicks. So if the sea ice continues to disappear, so will the emperor penguins. It is feared that the total population, estimated at 595,000 in 2012, will halve before 2052, with the most northerly colonies being lost entirely. 

The emperor penguin is the largest of the seventeen penguin species, one of only four that lives on the Antarctic mainland (the others being the Adélie, the gentoo and the chinstrap). It is also the only one that breeds in winter, and so it has to survive the very harshest of weather conditions. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Captain Scott’s ill-fated 1910 -1913 Terra Nova expedition, wrote: “I do not believe anybody on Earth has a worse time than an emperor penguin”.

They grow to a height of over three feet, and only ostriches and the other large flightless birds are heavier. As well as size, they are distinguished from their close relative the king penguin by the colour of the ear patch – yellow in the emperor, orange in the king.

Emperor penguins come ashore in April – autumn in Antarctica – after three months feeding at sea. They waddle or skate on their bellies across the ice to their breeding grounds, often a distance of over 100 km, and find a mate, not usually the same one as before. In late May or early June, the female lays her single egg, which is transferred very carefully to the male, who keeps it balanced on top of his feet, pressed against his bald brood patch and covered by loose skin and feathers. (If the egg is dropped onto the ice, it invariably dies.) The female then shuffles back to the sea to feed, leaving her partner to guard the egg for 65 days or more. In all that time, he doesn’t eat. 

Temperatures get down to minus 40 degrees (Celsius and Fahrenheit) and howling blizzards make it a freezing hell. But he and hundreds of other fathers stand huddled together to keep as warm as they can, with just one purpose – to hatch their eggs, and so pass on their DNA. 

Can you imagine walking from, say, Skibbereen to Cork, in minus 40 degrees and 140 kph wind, then standing in one place for over two months in those conditions, with no food? 

When the chick hatches, in August, the male feeds it with a regurgitated fluid produced in his oesophagus, a substance high in protein and fat. This will keep the chick alive for a week. If the mother doesn’t return by then with a stomach full of food, the chick dies and all that effort will have been for nothing. When she does get back, the male, weakened by cold and starvation, then has to trudge all the way to the sea and go looking for food himself.

Emperor penguins have predators to contend with too. Southern giant petrels, like ferocious fulmars with six-foot wingspans, eat the penguin chicks if they can, and leopard seals and orcas wait for them in the water. Their greatest threat, however, comes from us.

Anthropogenic climate change is responsible for the loss of sea ice. It is also affecting the krill, squid and Antarctic silverfish – the penguins’ main prey – which are already in decline due to  overfishing. And there is a new menace – tourism. 

Until relatively recently, the only people who went to the Antarctic were explorers and scientists. West Cork had its own polar explorer – Patrick Keohane (whose father Timothy was coxswain of the Courtmacsherry lifeboat from 1901 to 1924). Patrick was on the Terra Nova too. It was during that expedition that Cherry-Garrard, along with Dr. Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers, made an incredibly arduous trek in the depths of winter to collect penguin eggs for research. Cherry-Garrard named his classic 1922 book, The Worst Journey in the World, after that excursion. Patrick Keohane was one of the men who, the following year, found the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers, who had died on their way back from the South Pole.

Now tourists, who blight so many of the world’s beauty spots, have begun to invade the last pristine landscape on earth. Even unintentionally, a crowd of humans will disturb a penguin colony; they might bring diseases, their helicopters upset the chicks, and think of the horror of an oil spill. There have already been accidents – an Argentine supply ship sank in 1989, spilling 640,000 litres of oil into the Antarctic sea. The cruise ship MS Explorer hit an iceberg and sank in 2007. 

At the other end of the globe, climate change is endangering polar bears – they hunt seals from sea ice; when the ice is gone, what will they do? Humans are suffering too – we think this endless rain is bad; in the South Pacific, entire nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are disappearing. 

These places seem an awfully long way away – how can our actions possibly affect them? But remember the insecticide DDT? Outlawed in most western nations by the 1980s, it is still being found in the fatty tissues of Adélie penguins thousands of miles from where it was originally sprayed. And uninhabited Henderson Island in the Pacific, one of the remotest places on earth, is also one of the most affected by plastic pollution. 

Some people don’t care about penguins or polar bears; to them, I have nothing polite to say. Many couldn’t find Kiribati or Henderson, let alone the Bellinghausen Sea, on a map. Others insist that current climate change has nothing to do with Man, that all the millions of aeroplanes, cars, building sites, factories and power stations in the world have no effect on the environment. But I have worked in three huge, horrible Chinese cities; in Zibo (with a population similar to that of the entire Irish Republic), the air quality was so bad I hardly saw the sun or moon, let alone the stars, for the fourteen months I lived there. How can anyone think that that sort of pollution isn’t changing the world’s climates? And who can possibly deny that the air was cleaner, the rivers less polluted, the seas filled with fish not plastic, hundreds of years ago?

The Earth has suffered many natural calamities in its 4,600,000 000 year history, but apart from the extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous Period, it has never experienced such rapid change as it has since the Industrial Revolution. Some animals can adapt to environmental pressures – there is evidence that emperor penguin colonies, having failed one year, learn to move farther inland the following year. But though behavioural adaptations might help them for a while, physiological changes – adapting to warmer air and sea temperatures – take hundreds of years. Penguins, and all the other animals whose lives we are destroying, don’t have that long.

So think about those fluffy penguin chicks as you sit in your overheated office, or cut the grass you only cut a week before, or use a power hose to clean the car when a sponge would do, or drive several miles for a plastic cup of coffee because you are such a victim of fashion, or so lazy, you can’t make coffee yourself. You might say: “Why should I care about the environment when the Chinese and the Indians and the next door neighbours don’t.” There is only one answer to that – because it is the right thing to do.  

Dr Jeremy A. Dorman

Dr Dorman is a zoologist and teacher living in West Cork.

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