Brutal moment thousands of emperor penguins killed by extreme ocean event

Satellite imagery has captured the distressing moment entire colonies are lost at sea.

Emperor penguins have suffered a “catastrophic breeding failure” after extreme loss of sea ice last year.

From the satellite images alone, it’s hard to conceive how brutal the scenes must be as the ice is torn apart. The tiny brown dot you can see circled in red is an entire penguin colony and a series of stills capture the moments the birds are overrun with black ocean water.

Sadly the ice melted before the chicks had grown their waterproof feathers, so it's believed thousands died. In previous years, the birds have been able to relocate, but in the areas surveyed in late 2022, there was nowhere for them to go.

Satellite images: A red circle highlights an emperor penguin breeding colony on ice at Smyley Island (left). Before the chicks were waterproof, their home was consumed by the ocean.
A red circle highlights an emperor penguin breeding colony on ice at Smyley Island (left). Before the chicks were waterproof, their home was consumed by the ocean. Source: Communications Earth & Environment,

Research published in the journal Communications Earth and Environment reveals it’s likely no chicks survived at four of the five known emperor penguin colonies in the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea — Rothschild Island, Verdi Inlet, Smyley Island, Bryan Peninsula and Pfrogner Point.

Grim facts about Antarctica's emperor penguins

  • Emperor penguin eggs hatch after 65 days, but chicks can't fledge until December or January.

  • In just 7 years, sea ice has decreased significantly around Antarctica.

  • In the 45-year satellite record for Antarctica, its four lowest sea ice extents have occurred since 2016.

In the video below you can see the devastating moments entire emperor penguin colonies are lost to ocean waters.

Research supports penguin extinction prediction

The research supports a sombre prediction that emperor penguins face extinction before the end of the century — one study suggests they could be wiped out in 30 years.

“We have never seen emperor penguins fail to breed, at this scale, in a single season. The loss of sea ice in this region during the Antarctic summer made it very unlikely that displaced chicks would survive,” lead author Dr Peter Fretwell said.

While not all emperor penguin chicks suffered this fate, of the 62 known colonies, 30 per cent were impacted by sea ice loss between 2018 and 2022.

Left - a colony of emperor penguins from a distance. Right - baby emperor penguins playing.
Emperor penguins huddle together on sea ice to protect their chicks from the elements. Source: Getty (File)

Antarctic map changing due to sea ice loss

While it's too early to link the specific 2022 extreme weather event directly to climate change, it likely played a role. As the planet warms due to the burning of fossil fuels, long-term declines in sea ice are expected.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has already made dramatic changes to its maps because of changes that have occurred already. In December last year, the continent had its lowest sea ice extent on record.

How climate change impacts sea ice

This August things are continuing to look dire. BAS polar climate expert Dr Caroline Holmes said oceans should be freezing up but there are many areas that remain ice-free.

"We’ll need years of targeted observations and modelling to know precisely how much the current conditions are being influenced by these phenomena and by natural ocean variability,” she said.

“However, the recent years of tumbling sea ice records and warming of the subsurface Southern Ocean point strongly to human-induced global warming exacerbating these extremes."

BAS sea ice physicist Dr Jeremy Wilkinson said the paper "dramatically reveals" the link between the loss of sea ice and the annihilation of ecosystems.

"It is another warning sign for humanity that we cannot continue down this path, politicians must act to minimise the impact of climate change. There is no time left," he said.

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new weekly newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.

Banner reads 'What on Earth' with 'Subscribe to our new weekly newsletter' and a collage of images of australian natural wildlife.
Click here to sign up to our newsletter.