Satellite Images Reveal New Penguin Colonies in Melting Antarctica

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An emperor penguin colony captured via Sentinel-2 on November 3, 2019, at Cape Poinsett in Antarctica.

An emperor penguin colony captured via Sentinel-2 on November 3, 2019, at Cape Poinsett in Antarctica.Image: Sentinel-2/ESA

Satellites have spotted eight new emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, as well as confirmed the existence of three others. While this sounds good, the unfortunate reality is that these newly discovered penguins are just as threatened as the rest.

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Documented in a paper published in the Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation journal on Tuesday, these findings show just how troubled emperor penguins are. Climate change is rapidly altering the surface of Earth. The Antarctic, however, is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet. With all that warmth comes the loss of sea ice. Research has found that a group of Adélie penguins actually thrived during a period of sea ice loss, but that’s not the case for emperor penguins. They breed on sea ice, so they need it to be stable.

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“Emperor penguins are vulnerable to climate change, particularly the breakup of the sea ice on which they breed,” said study author Peter Fretwell, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey, in an email. “Finding more penguins and studying their movements and distribution will be important if we are to understand their struggle to survive in the warming Antarctic environment.”

The study authors discovered these new penguin colonies using the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite. The ESA makes these images freely available online, so the team was able to assess images from 2016, 2018, and 2019, the three years available. By searching the images for “small areas of brown pixels,” aka a lot of penguin poop, and targeting their searches by looking at areas near known colonies and breeding habitat, the researchers were able to find these new communities. In total, they estimate that these extra locations can increase the global population of emperor penguins by 5-10%. That’s up to 55,000 more penguins.

The Halley Bay emperor penguin colony declined dramatically from 2015 to 2018, as these satellite images show. As of 2019, the colony has disappeared.

The Halley Bay emperor penguin colony declined dramatically from 2015 to 2018, as these satellite images show. As of 2019, the colony has disappeared.

I’d like to think that these new penguins offer some hope for the future of species, but that’s not the case. Instead, the authors write in the paper that the findings suggest an even greater proportion of this creature is now vulnerable to climate change. Many of these colonies are on the edge of their breeding zone. All are in areas where colonies are expected to be extinct or nearly extinct (at least 90% loss) by the end of the century. Their group sizes are also very small; some have only a few hundred birds.

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“It is unlikely that any of them will still exist at the end of the century if global warming continues at its current rate,” Fretwell said.

So this celebration is short-lived. Discovering new life is bittersweet these days. Unless governments get into overdrive to curve emissions and regulate polluters, this iconic species will be lost forever.

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