Sea Melting and the Conservation of Penguins

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Table of Contents

  • The Melting of Sea
  • How Melting Influences Penguins?
  • Penguin Conservation
  • References

The Melting of Sea

When people picture Antarctica, they often envision freezing temperatures and an extensive landscape of ice, filled with thousands of iconic Emperor penguins. But, the current state of Antarctica could not be more different than this image. The reason for this is sea ice, the broken-up crust that forms when the briny water of the ocean freezes [footnoteRef:1], or, specifically, the lack of it. The melting of sea ice is a natural process and occurs in a yearly cycle, but in the last fifty years the time without this sea ice has greatly increased and the amount of ice that is able to refreeze has drastically decreased; putting immense pressure on the species whose survival depends on the availability of sea ice1. The main cause of the melting ice is the global warming of Earth due to excessive carbon emissions by humans in conjunction with the greenhouse effect. As early as 1968 scientists have warned industries and governments of the significant melting of sea ice in Antarctica [footnoteRef:2]. Still, the general global attitude has been to prioritize industry over the preservation of this continent or even deny the validity of global warming as a process altogether. Because of this, climate change has irreversibly changed the landscape of Antarctica and the biodiversity of species that live there. [1: Welch, Craig. "Climate Change Is Unraveling This Antarctic Ecosystem." National Geographic, 23 Oct. 2018,] [2: "The Scientist Who Predicted Ice-Sheet Collapse - 50 Years Ago." Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 30 Jan. 2018,]

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Many studies have shown that the melting of sea ice has lasting effects on the ecosystem as a whole. It has been recorded that winter air on the western peninsula of Antarctica has warmed more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s1. This is especially important because winds "drive changes in ocean circulation that bring warmer deep water toward the surface, helping to reduce sea ice"1. Recent studies have shown that the ice-free season on the western peninsula of Antarctica has been increased by as much as three months1. Scientist Dion Poncet explains that the Western Hemisphere equivalent of this is to "imagine summer suddenly stretching to Christmas"1.

How Melting Influences Penguins?

Penguins are of specific interest to many scientists because of their dependency on large expanses of sea ice for migration and survival as well as their presence as a top predator's in the marine food chain. There are nine penguin species that live and breed in Antarctica or sub-Antarctica: Adélies, Chinstraps, Emperors, Gentoos, Macaronis, Royals, Southern Rockhoppers, Northern Rockhoppers, and Kings. Adélies and Emperor penguins are among the most studied species, but all data collection over long periods has historically been challenging due to the harsh conditions, cost, and unpredictability of living in Antarctica. Adélie penguins, like most smaller species endemic to Antarctica, build nests out of pebbles to protect their eggs and return to the same breeding site each year at the same time, "even if it's raining or snowing or ice is melting"1. Typically, they build these nests on dry rocks or soil but are more recently are forced to build their nests on less stable soft snow. Global warming has caused an increase in liquid precipitation across the continent in the place of snow. Not only does this cause the penguin's unstable nests to flood, but young penguins who have not yet developed their waterproof feathers often absorb the water and die from hypothermia [footnoteRef:3]. Adult penguins also struggle with the loss of sea ice. Adélies molt on floes, or floating piece of ice, far at sea and use ice as resting areas as well as sanctuaries from predators in between hunting1. As waters continue to warm, some more adaptable penguins are performing better than others. Gentoos, described as fat, tall generalists1, are more flexible about when and where they build nests and are more apt to lay new eggs if the first nesting fails1. They hunt closer to the mainland and eat what is abundant at the time. From 1982 to 2017, the number of breeding pairs of Adélies along the western peninsula and the South Shetland Islands dropped by more than 70 percent, from 105,000 to 30,0001. Contrastly, Gentoo pairs saw a six-times increase, from 25,000 to 173,0001. Because of Adélie's lack of fitness in these new conditions and competition from other penguin species like Gentoos, humans are indirectly causing a historic speciation event and pushing Adélies to extinction. [3: "Melting Sea Ice Threatens Emperor Penguins, Study Finds." Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 20 June 2012,]

There are some differences in how larger penguins, like Emperor penguins, raise their young. Emperor penguins breed and raise their young exclusively on sea ice1. This poses a large problem if the sea ice were to disappear early in the breeding season or not develop at all in traditional breeding areas, leading to massive breeding failure. This is even more concerning as without the pressure of melting sea ice, the effectiveness of Emperor penguin's reproduction is still very low. Stephanie Jenouvrier, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution states that, "As it is, there's a huge mortality rate just at the breeding stages, because only 50 percent of chicks survive to the end of the breeding season, and then only half of those fledglings survive until the next year"3. This low effective population contributes to the speed at which these penguin populations can decline as small changes to offspring production have massive negative implications. Stephanie's study concluded that, "if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at levels similar to today—causing temperatures to rise and Antarctic sea ice to shrink—emperor penguin population numbers will diminish slowly until about 2040, after which they would decline at a much steeper rate as sea ice coverage drops below a usable threshold"3 signifying a decline below the minimum viable population. A paper by Christophe Barbraud culminates one of the largest data sets available on the breeding behaviors of Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic and found that: the breeding success of populations is extremely volatile from year to year and the number of breeding pairs of Emperor penguins in Terre Adélie, a portion of the Antarctic peninsula, has massively declined from 1955 to 2000 [footnoteRef:4]. Just how extreme the breeding volatility of this species is becoming apparent from a graph in the paper that presented: in 1971 the percent success of breeding was about 75% while in 1972 the success was less than 5%4. This significant of a difference, a difference of 70% to 60%, occurred three other times between 1955 to 2000 alone4. The steady decline of breeding pairs is also presented in graph form in the paper and shows the number of breeding pairs steadily decreasing from about 6100 in 1955 to about 2300 in 20004. [4: Barbraud, C., Weimerskirch, H. Emperor penguins and climate change. Nature 411, 183–186 (2001) doi:10.1038/35075554]

Penguins are further threatened by the cascading effect the loss of sea ice has on their food webs. Though penguins consume food sources like fish and squid, their primary source of sustenance is krill. Penguins are so dependent on krill that the two species' success is often studied in accordance with one another. Krill feed on zooplankton and phytoplankton that grow on the underside of the ice3. Furthermore, with the lack of regulations on fishing in Antarctica, krill is removed from the ocean at a rate higher than their max sustainable yield. The combination of these two factors proves to have drastic effects on the availability of food for Penguin populations.

The continued disappearance of sea ice will impact us more than most people believe. The changes in the Antarctic marine environment has effects on the fish we eat as well as the "nutrient cycles"3 that involve species all over the world.

Penguin Conservation

Though there are several methods of conservation currently in place for penguins in Antarctica, they fail to be extreme enough to protect the diminishing numbers of many Penguin populations. The three most significant efforts for Antarctic penguin conservation are: global legislature to reduce climate change, Marine Protected Areas around parts of some Penguin's habitats [footnoteRef:5] and passive data collection on Penguin populations to inform on species status. Global legislature still fails to put any real consequences on countries who do not follow greenhouse gas emission expectations or reductions. The infamous Paris agreement that placed restrictions and goals for reduction of Greenhouse gases for the 195 countries that signed the document is nothing more than an agreement. This was proven by the United States when they withdrew from the agreement just last year with no repercussions. Current MPA's are not extensive enough and only cover partial regions of Penguin habitats, leading to insufficient food availability. The current level of Penguin in-situ conservation is very passive and lacks the resources and finances to provide a real effect in the protection of these species. Stephanie's research team utilized Passive Inductive Transponder (PIT) Tag technology, which helps identify the "birds and track demographic data, such as whether they return to the colony to breed and raise chicks"3. Still, data is not as widespread and abundant as it should be. In my research, I could not find any attempts made to assist the bird populations directly- whether that be adult or juvenile penguins. [5: "Chapter 1." Penguins Natural History and Conservation, by Pablo Garcia Borboroglu and P. Dee Boersma, University of Washington Press, 2013, pp. 14–16.]

In my opinion, the best solution to this complex issue has three parts. I believe the first step would be to increase ex-situ conservation efforts. To minimize the effects of progressively declining reproductive success and because juvenile Penguin survival is so poor across penguin species, an increase in ex-situ conservation efforts that support these juveniles as they grow and protect them from early death would have major benefits. This could be done by taking eggs away from parents and raising them until they were able to withstand the harsh winter temperatures and could take advantage of the possibility for double clutching to further increase population size. Even a small increase in population size will have large effects because of the chances of increasing the already small effective population.

This method has the drawbacks of being very expensive and requiring constant monitoring of the penguins that are being raised. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that reintroduced Penguins will be accepted by the population and depending on the age at which the Penguins were reintroduced, Parental support could be vital. Also, if the proper precautions were not taken to develop the natural instincts of the birds, there is no way they could survive in the wild. This may involve minimal human contact. A similar project was attempted with African penguins, genus Spheniscus demersus, where the eggs of these birds were removed and raised until they were fledglings [footnoteRef:6]. When they were ready to be released, the birds were implanted with trackers. The goal of the study was to see the most productive forging sights off the coast of South Africa and Namibia using these captive birds that they could later track but, inveterately this proves the capability of Penguins to be raised in captivity and reintroduced successfully into the population. [6: Sherley, Rb, et al. "The Initial Journey of an Endangered Penguin: Implications for Seabird Conservation." Endangered Species Research, vol. 21, no. 1, 2013, pp. 89–95., doi:10.3354/esr00510.]

The next step is to expand the protection of the Penguin's prey in the largest unregulated Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. In the book, "Penguins: Natural History and Conservation", the authors states that current Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) "encompass only part of the King penguin's habitat"5 and creating high-seas MPA's in "key feeding areas outside national jurisdiction"5 is key to protecting this species. This solution can be very effective but comes with its obvious drawbacks. The area lost to fishing can cause unrest among local fisherman and the money to maintain and monitor these MPA's in such a remote area is immense.

Still, the last two steps are only temporary fixes for a more major issue. The final, inevitable, step is to impose stricter legislature that holds countries accountable is an absolute necessity. Though this will cause conflict among countries and people, I believe it is a necessity. The events occurring in Antarctica are only the beginning of the cascading effects global warming and melting sea ice will cause on the global scene. There will come a point where these effects can no longer be ignored.


  1. "Chapter 1." Penguins Natural History and Conservation, by Pablo Garcia Borboroglu and P. Dee Boersma, University of Washington Press, 2013, pp. 14–16.
  2. "Melting Sea Ice Threatens Emperor Penguins, Study Finds." Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 20 June 2012,
  3. "The Scientist Who Predicted Ice-Sheet Collapse - 50 Years Ago." Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 30 Jan. 2018,
  4. Sherley, Rb, et al. "The Initial Journey of an Endangered Penguin: Implications for Seabird Conservation." Endangered Species Research, vol. 21, no. 1, 2013, pp. 89–95., doi:10.3354/esr00510.
  5. Welch, Craig. "Climate Change Is Unraveling This Antarctic Ecosystem." National Geographic, 23 Oct. 2018,
  6. Barbraud, C., Weimerskirch, H. Emperor penguins and climate change. Nature 411, 183–186 (2001) doi:10.1038/35075554

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