Penguins and Climate Change

When I began my this project I started looking at some basic facts about Penguins and jotted them down on a large sheet. Visualising facts helps me to remember them. However, none of this research involves climate change.

Now I know more about climate change I need to begin to look at the effect on Penguins. I want to focus on Antarctica where there are only two species of the bird; the Emperor and the Adelie. This will ensure that my information graphic will remain concise.

Putting restrictions in place means that I will be forced to focus on small areas of information, which will hopefully make a more pleasing and understandable design. So, what are my restrictions?

  • Keeping the area local to Antarctica
  • Using only two species of Penguin (the Emperor, the Adelie)

Penguins and Climate Change

The research I have already conducted on Antarctica has clearly indicated that it has been affected in more ways than one. So how does this affect it’s wildlife?

The Antarctic Peninsular (shown below) is a good place to start looking at how climate has affected penguins as there is already evidence of entire Emperor colonies being wiped out. Dion island off the West coast of the peninsular was home to a small colony discovered in 1948 consisting of just 150 breeding pairs and until the 70′s seemed stable but in 1999 there were just 20 pairs and in 2009 they were gone. Data collected by a station roughly 25 miles away suggests that the air temperature in this area has increased dramatically as well as the sea ice developing later and receding much more rapidly. Information published in 2007 from the Journal of Geophysical Research found that between 1979 and 2004 in this region, sea ice began advancing about 54 days later and retreating 31 days earlier although this trend does not continue throughout the entire continent. If the sea ice develops late and melts early it often means that the breeding cycle isn’t fully completed. Emperor chicks have to lose their down before they can swim, if the ice which they grow up on disappears the chicks will drown.


In the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, the study found a 36% chance that shrinking Antarctic sea ice could cause emperor penguin populations to drop by 95% or more by 2100.

Stephanie Jenouvier a researcher from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Centre has recorded 3,000 Emperor breeding pairs in Terre Adelie but believes that this could drop to roughly 500 – 600 breeding pairs by 2100.

An article from 2009 called An Emperor Penguin Population Estimate: The First Global Synoptic Survey of a Species from Space, discusses what they believe the current population to be. The researchers used various methods to find this out from the air.  They describe finding 4 new colonies and confirming 3 previously believed to exist bringing the total to 46 total Emperor colonies that are mapped below.

Colony Positions

From this image it is clear to see that the Antarctic Peninsular is home to very fe emperor colonies and this is where climate change appears to be affecting the most.

‘We estimated the breeding population of emperor penguins at each colony during 2009 and provide a population estimate of ~238,000 breeding pairs (compared with the last previously published count of 135,000–175,000 pairs). Based on published values of the relationship between breeders and non-breeders, this translates to a total population of ~595,000 adult birds’. From this it appears that the populations have risen but this could just be to do with the technology that has been used.

Below, each colony has been mapped by size. Each circle’s size determines the number of breeding pairs in each location.


The penguins are not only being affected directly but also their food. They eat krill from the ocean but with the temperatures rising at an alarming rate the numbers of the krill are declining also, a study shows that the numbers have declined by 80& since the 1970′s. With less food to eat penguins will most definitely be finding it much harder to feed themselves and of course their chicks. ‘Warmer air and sea surface temperatures in the Antarctic reduce the amount of ice in the sea. This, in turn, leads to smaller populations of krill, a shrimp-like crustacean that is a staple of the emperor penguin’s diet. With less food to eat, emperor penguins die.’ - National Geographic – Penguin Decline in Antarctica Linked With Climate Change

National Geographic released back in 2001 mentions that penguin population has declines by 50% in 50 years. In the 80′s there was evidence to suggest that the population number were falling but it is only in recent years that we have discovered that this is an affect of a change in the normal climate.

Penguin Science - ‘As shown in this graph (data from Barbraud & Weimirskirch 2001), the Pt. Géologie colony began a sudden decline in the mid-1970s and has since failed to recover, probably due to warming winter temperatures that have resulted in thinner fast ice on which they breed. The strong Antarctic winds have thus been able to blow the ice away before the chicks were ready to fledge. It is this loss of chicks that has prevented the colony’s recovery.’



This is the trend of an Adélie Penguin colony at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (see map below; data from Bill Fraser in Ducklow et al. 2007). It is located at the extreme northern (warm) edge of where this species occurs on Earth. The air temperature in this area has been warming rapidly (several degrees in the last 50 years), resulting in sea ice failing to form during winter and spring. Because Adélie Penguins are especially adapted to the cold conditions associated with sea ice and do not compete favorably with other penguins which are less adapted to the cold, the overall population has been declining at this and nearby colonies, and any young produced have chosen to nest farther south where sea ice remains. Eventually, Adélie Penguin colonies in this area will disappear, leaving only nest stones and mummies behind. Other species of penguins (such as Chinstrap penguins), if fisheries do not deplete their prey, may move in to replace the Adélies. If global warming begins to influence the more southern reaches of the Antarctic continent, then the entire world’s population of Adélie Penguins could be at risk.


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