LAST_UPDATESun, 24 Jun 2018 11am

Thousands Of Penguin Chicks Starved To Death In Antarctica

Only two chicks survived, while the rest starved. Pic: Y. Ropert Couder/ CNRS/ IPEVOnly two chicks survived, while the rest starved. Pic: Y. Ropert Couder/ CNRS/ IPEV

The effect of climate change is very real for Adelie penguins as thousands of their chicks died in Antarctica early this year.

French scientists that have been studying the colony of more than 18,000 pairs of Adelie penguins in the French Antarctic territory, or East Antarctica, found that only two chicks survived at the start of 2017.

The problem was caused by the unusually extensive sea ice late in the summer that forced the parents to forage further for food and left the chicks dying of starvation while they wait for their parents to come back.

"The birds have to travel much further in difficult conditions to find food for the chicks.

"The chicks are undernourished, so they are really weak, and they can be starving to death if the parents don't come back with food for them," said penguin scientist Yan Ropert-Coudert, senior penguin scientist at Dumont D’Urville research station, adjacent to the colony, as reported by ABC Australia.

However, this was not the first time the colony suffered the loss of thousands of chicks as four years ago they also experienced a catastrophic breeding event, and Dr Ropert-Coudert said that it was linked to the breakup of the Mertz glacier back in 2010.

"The original culprit was when the Mertz glacier was hit by the B9B iceberg in 2010, which has profoundly changed the area in front of Dumont D'Urville.

"The scene is set basically for climatic changes to push the environmental condition to change and to extend the sea ice cover."

He added that there are also other factors that need to come to play to have a zero year which are a mix of temperature, wind direction and strength and no opening of polynya (an area of unfrozen sea within an ice pack) in front of the colony, AFP reports.

Thankfully, these zero years are not an annual occurrence but it is difficult for the scientists to predict the long-term impact.

"There are years where all the conditions are set for this to happen, and there are years when it still will be okay.

"But it's not every year, that's the important message," Dr Ropert-Coudert said.

The discovery of the penguin chick deaths have prompted the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to call for east Antarctic waters to be protected ahead of the 2017 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) annual meeting in Hobart next week.

Last year, the 25-member CCAMLR agreed to establish the world’s largest marine protected area (MRA) that covers more than 1.55 million square kilometres (600,000 square miles) in the Ross Sea area of Antarctica.

"The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adelie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable.

"So CCAMLR needs to act now by adopting a new marine protected area (MPA) for the waters off east Antarctica, to protect the home of the penguins,” WWF's Rod Downie reportedly said.

For the past eight years, Australia and France have led a proposal for an MPA in east Antarctica, which has been considered at the annual CCAMLR meeting but they have not been able to reach an agreement so far.