Massive Iceberg Grounding Led To 150,000 Antarctic Penguin Deaths

February 16, 2016 | Joanne Kennell


Too much ice in Antarctica can be just as disastrous as not enough ice in the Arctic.

This is really sad to hear — nearly 150,000 penguins died after an enormous iceberg grounded near their colony in Antarctica.  Unfortunately, it forced them to make a long journey just to find food, which led to devastating consequences, according to scientists from the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) Climate Change Research Centre and New Zealand’s West Coast Penguin Trust in a newly published study in Antarctic Science.

The iceberg, named B09B, is 100 square kilometers (38.6 square miles) in size, and it grounded in Commonwealth Bay in East Antarctica in December 2010.  In February 2011, the Adelie penguin population, located at the bay’s Cape Denison was measured at roughly 160,000.  However in December 2013, the population was down to an estimated 10,000 — a heartbreaking drop!

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So why was the iceberg grounding so devastating?  Unfortunately, due to the location where the iceberg is currently settled, the penguins had to walk more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) just to find food, which impeded their breeding attempts.  

“The Cape Denison population could be extirpated within 20 years unless B09B relocates or the now perennial fast ice [sea ice that is attached to the coast] within the bay breaks out,” the researchers wrote in their study.

During the researcher’s census in December 2013, “hundreds of abandoned eggs were noted, and the ground was littered with freeze-dried carcasses of previous season’s chicks,” lead author Dr. Kerry-Jayne Wilson of the West Coast Penguin Trust said in a statement.

“It's eerily silent now,” UNSW's Professor of Climate Change and Earth Sciences Chris Turney, who led the 2013-2014 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, told the Sydney Morning Herald.  “The ones that we saw at Cape Denison were incredibly docile, lethargic, almost unaware of your existence.  The ones that are surviving are clearly struggling. They can barely survive themselves, let alone hatch the next generation. We saw lots of dead birds on the ground... it's just heartbreaking to see.”

In a striking contrast, the penguins living on the eastern side of the bay, just eight kilometers (five miles) from the iceberg, were thriving, the scientists said.

Luckily, according to co-author Chris Fogwill of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, there was some good news for the colony.

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“Over the last year the fast ice associated with B09B has begun to break up in Commonwealth Bay,” he said in the press release.

If you were not aware of this, sea ice is actually increasing in Antarctica — as opposed to melting and shrinking in the Arctic — and this increase could have important implications for more than just the penguin populations if the growth continues.  Antarctica has a very fragile ecosystem that researchers are still trying to understand.

Scientists believe that the growth in Antarctic sea ice is mainly driven by changes in wind and local conditions due to climate change, but it is still an area of current research.

One theory states that even though sea ice has been increasing, the ice covering the landmass of Antarctica has been melting fast, and this cold fresh water is draining into the Southern Ocean, creating a cold surface layer and hence the formation of sea ice.

Now, this does not mean that climate change is not real or a matter of opinion.  In fact, Antarctica’s gain in sea ice is more than canceled out by the much larger melting of Arctic ice — meaning there is an overall pattern of melting sea ice.

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