Scientists have discovered a new emperor penguin colony in one of the most inaccessible and remote areas of Antarctica, using satellite images. The colony, which consists of nearly 500 penguins, makes a total of 66 known colonies around the continent’s coastline, half of which were also discovered using satellites.
Dr. Peter Fretwell, who led the British Antarctic Survey, stated that “[it’s] an exciting discovery”, especially since the climate crisis has been melting the sea ice at an extraordinary rate, which poses an existential threat to the penguins.
Emperor penguins are unique in that they’re the only type of penguins that bread on sea ice, instead of land. For this reason, they’re very difficult to observe and study as they’re often located in areas that are remote and inaccessible. Some regions also experience extreme cold, with temperatures as low as -76F.
For the past 15 years, scientists at the British Antarctic Survey have been searching for new colonies using space satellite imagery for tell-tale brown stains on the ice (penguin poo).
The newest colony was discovered in West Antarctica, at Verleger Point, based on images from the European Commission’s Sentinel-2 satellite and was later confirmed using high-res images from the Maxar WorldView-3 Sattelite.
According to Fretzwell, penguin chicks are especially vulnerable to climate change as they need the sea ice to last between April and September, which gives them ample time to grow stronger and more robust. If the ice melts before that, the chick will likely fall into the ice-cold water and freeze.
The size of the colony also has a direct impact on their survival rates as penguins tend to huddle together for warmth and protection during storms. This is especially true during the two-month period in which males incubate the eggs.
As it is, several colonies have already been lost due to the climate crisis, including one at Halley Bay that had previously been stable for 50 years. While these penguins will most likely never see humans in their lifetime, it’s ultimately what we’re doing on the other side of the planet that’s killing them.
According to previous research, 90 percent of known Emperor penguin colonies will be lost by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions keep on rising at the current rate. In fact, there have been significant changes in Antarctic sea ice since 2015.