As ice melts, emperor penguins march toward extinction (2024)

This story appears in the June 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

First, a black dot appears in the distance. More dots join, forming meandering lines across the newly white icescape.

“Then all of a sudden, you hear the first calls,” photographer Stefan Christmann says. That’s when it really hits him: “Wow. The birds are coming back.”

It’s late March in Atka Bay, in Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land, nearly 2,700 miles southwest of the southern tip of Africa. Christmann has been waiting more than two months for the emperor penguins—the biggest of all penguins, standing about four feet tall and weighing up to nearly 90 pounds—to return from foraging at sea.

His plan is to stay with the Atka Bay colony’s roughly 10,000 penguins through the winter, for the second time. He spent the winter here five years ago and has come back to complete his chronicling of the emperor’s breeding cycle—something few, if any, wildlife photographers have done. With temperatures falling to at least 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (45 degrees below zero Celsius) and shrieking blizzards that cut visibility to a few feet, the Antarctic winter is not for the faint of heart—especially during July and August, its coldest months.

“To be quite honest, you get used to it after a while,” Christmann tells me matter-of-factly.

What the emperor penguins won’t easily get used to is diminishing—and possibly disappearing—sea ice, which provides a stable breeding platform and base from which they can hunt for food in surrounding waters. Despite being superb swimmers, adult emperors in the 54 colonies around Antarctica—some 256,500 breeding pairs—must nurture their chicks out of water on the sea ice before spring comes and the ice melts. Antarctic sea ice is highly variable, but five years ago it suddenly declined, with record shrinkage in 2017, according to a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. Sea ice may now be recovering, but it still remains below the long-term average, and climate models predict continued significant losses by century’s end unless urgent action is taken against climate change.

“Under a business-as-usual scenario, emperor penguins are marching towards extinction,” says Stéphanie Jenouvrier, a seabird biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Her team’s research indicates that if carbon emissions remain unchecked, 80 percent of the emperor colonies could be gone by 2100, leaving little hope for the species’ survival. Average global temperature is on track to increase by three to five degrees Celsius (5.4 to nine degrees Fahrenheit) by then, but if the rise can be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), Jenouvrier says, perhaps nearly 20 percent of colonies would be lost, while the Ross Sea and Weddell Sea populations, potential emperor penguin refuges because of more favorable sea ice conditions, would increase slightly.

With the sea platform in place and the Atka Bay penguins settled in, Christmann sets about capturing the scene as they begin a brand-new turn of their life cycle. An elegant courtship unfolds as penguins pick that year’s partner. A brief and awkward copulation follows, as the males do their best not to fall off.

Afterward, the penguin partners stick together, mirroring each other’s movements. Their close bonds will help ensure their chick’s survival—it’s the only one they’ll have that season. One day Christmann notices a pair peering at a snowball carefully balanced on the female’s feet. He guesses they’re a first-time couple practicing their egg-balancing skills.

By the end of May, the first eggs appear, one per female. Laying has come at a physical cost, so the hungry female carefully passes her egg to her mate and gets ready to leave. The partners will test the strength of their bonds as the females return to sea to feed.

For the males left behind, winter closes in. In 100-mile-an-hour winds and plummeting temperatures, the birds huddle to share body heat. Such cooperation keeps the dads and their precious eggs alive, as do the males’ body reserves—there’s nothing to eat, and they’ll lose almost half their weight before the females return. On the coldest days the penguins fall silent, saving as much energy as possible. All Christmann hears is the eerie sound of their feet scraping over the ice.

Through the six-month-long winter, Christmann and 11 others are the only humans in this part of Antarctica, huddling themselves in a small German research station perched on the ice shelf above Atka Bay. In all but the worst of storms, when the humans stay inside, it’s a snowmobile ride down the steep escarpment and onto the sea ice to be with the penguins.

In late July the polar night ends, and soon the rising sun greets new voices in the colony. If their mothers don’t get back in time with food for their young, the chicks get their first meal from their father—gooey milk from his esophagus. But after enduring the winter, not all the males have been successful. Christmann sees one picking up a dead, frozen chick and balancing it on his feet. “He took the chick and walked towards the colony, acting as if everything was normal.” It was “heartbreaking,” Christmann says.

Females return just when their starving partners need them most. Pairs reinforce their bonds. Mothers see their chicks for the first time and take over feeding duties. For months, parents form a tag team, taking turns to fetch food for the growing chicks. Around September, both parents must go fishing together to satisfy ever hungrier mouths, leaving the chicks to hang out in crèches.

The youngsters learn to huddle, not always neatly. A few nestle together, then others race up and slam into the pile. As the huddle grows, latecomers try pushing in—“right in the warm portion of the huddle,” Christmann says.

Sometimes lone parents stay behind and watch over the crèches. Christmann sees an adult with two chicks. Although only one belongs to the caretaker, the bird reaches down and feeds them both. An accident? Maybe not. Adult emperors frequently perform a ritual of lifting their brood pouch, a feathery flap of skin, to show others their newborn. It’s unproven, but Christmann thinks it’s possible that the parents do this to form close bonds, becoming guardians to each other’s chicks and helping out with childcare.

Toward year’s end, the chicks are nearly as tall as their parents, but they aren’t out of danger. Before the sea ice melts, the chicks must swap their gray down for waterproof, adult feathers; otherwise, they’ll drown. This happened in 2016 at the Halley colony, when a storm broke up the ice before October and the chicks were still in their crèche period. Since then the ice hasn’t been stable enough to support adults, leading to almost complete breeding failure, with no chicks successfully reared. That colony—previously Antarctica’s second largest—is now mostly abandoned. The storm coincided with the strongest El Niño event in 60 years, the kind of extreme weather pattern that’s expected to become more frequent. Counts of penguins in satellite images are under way to gauge how much the birds have been affected by the recent changes in sea ice losses around Antarctica. The results likely will be a warning sign for the future of the species.

Back at Atka Bay, the sea ice begins melting at the end of December, earlier than expected, and Christmann sees molting adults and chicks clambering to safety atop the higher ice shelf—an extension of the much thicker terrestrial ice—using a pile of drifted snow as a ramp.

A month later, he watches the last full-grown chicks leap from the shelf some 15 to 30 feet into the sea. “It looks spectacular,” he says.

Elsewhere in Antarctica, emperor penguin colonies won’t have this option to survive the early disintegration of their sea ice haven. Many ice shelves are simply too high for waddling penguins to climb. Even if they make it up, the ice is scarred with deadly crevasses, and there’s no shelter from the punishing winds.
“I’m worried about them becoming the new polar bears,” Christmann says, referencing those famous denizens of fast-shrinking Arctic sea ice.

It was never going to be easy for Christmann, spending a year on the frozen continent, leaving his loved ones behind, but the emperor penguins kept him going. “There’s this bird that cannot fly, that walks funny, that always looks grumpy, and this bird shows you how it’s done,” he says. “They are able to live through the harshest of conditions, and it would be us who send them over the edge. I would feel very, very sad about that.”

Helen Scales divides her time between Cambridge, England, and the French coast. She’s written five books about the oceans. Stefan Christmann won the 2019 Wildlife Photographer Portfolio of the Year Award for his work on emperor penguins.

As ice melts, emperor penguins march toward extinction (2024)


As ice melts, emperor penguins march toward extinction? ›

Humans are causing the world to warm. With warmer temperatures, sea ice around Antarctica will melt. For emperor penguins, this means their homes might disappear. We know so much about emperor penguins because scientists and explorers have been studying them for over 70 years.

What happens to penguins when the ice melts? ›

Penguin chicks don't develop their adult waterproof feathers until close to the time they usually fledge, in late December or January, scientists say. "If the sea ice breaks up under them, the young chicks will drown or freeze to death," Fretwell said.

How are emperor penguins going extinct? ›

Climate change-triggered melting of sea ice in Antarctica is taking a heavy toll on emperor penguins and could wipe out entire populations by as early as 2100, new research suggests.

What are the causes that might lead to extinction of the emperor penguins? ›

The loss of Antarctic sea ice—caused by increased global temperatures—could cause emperor penguins to be nearly extinct by the end of the century, according to a study published Thursday, the latest species facing a threat of extinction caused by climate change.

Why do emperor penguins march? ›

In autumn, all the penguins of breeding age (five years old and over) leave the ocean, which is their normal habitat, to walk inland to their ancestral breeding grounds. There, the penguins participate in a courtship that, if successful, results in the hatching of a chick.

What will happen to emperor penguins if the sea ice shrinks? ›

Sea ice is essential for emperor penguins to breed and raise their young. In late 2022, early ice breakup caused the emperor penguin colonies in the Bellingshausen Sea to experience total breeding collapse, with an estimated 9,000 chicks dying. Current projections indicate that emperor penguins may be extinct by 2100.

Can penguins survive without ice? ›

Emperor penguin colonies require sea ice attached to solid land between April and January to breed, molt and forage successfully. Any changes to the sea ice can lead to penguin chicks missing the opportunity to develop the waterproof feathers necessary for survival.

Are penguins going to be extinct in 2025? ›

Unfortunately, the population is still in decline, and it is predicted that the African penguin will be extinct in the wild by 2025.

What is killing emperor penguins? ›

Sea ice covers about 9% of the ocean and forms, grows, and melts entirely in the ocean. Emperor penguins are dependent on sea ice to breed, feed, moult, and hide from predators. Sea ice levels are plummeting in Antarctica due to climate change. As of August 2023, they're at a record low for the time of year.

How many emperor penguins are left in the world 2024? ›

Download Table Data
SpeciesScientific NameEstimated # of Reproductive Pairs
Emperor penguinAptenodytes forsteri270,000 - 350,000
King penguinAptenodytes patagonicus1,600,000
Southern Rockhopper penguinEudyptes chrysocome1,200,000
Macaroni penguinEudyptes chrysolophus6,300,000
14 more rows

What year will penguins go extinct? ›

The emperor penguin relies on ice for breeding, and is the most vulnerable of Antarctica's species. In the worst-case scenario, the emperor penguin is at risk of extinction by 2100 – the only species in our study facing this fate.

Are penguins in danger of extinction? ›

As a group, penguins are one of the two most threatened seabird species in the world. According to Birdlife International, 10 of the world's 18 penguin species are considered endangered. Of the 8 Antarctic penguin species two are vulnerable, two are near-threatened and the others have healthy populations.

Can emperor penguins go extinct by 2100? ›

Up to 80 per cent of emperor penguin colonies are projected to be quasi-extinct by 2100 [population declines of more than 90 per cent] with business-as-usual increases in greenhouse gas emissions,” it found.

How does March of the Penguins end? ›

As the closing credits roll, footage is shown of the photographers dragging their equipment across the ice, setting up their cameras, and shooting film as the penguins walk around them.

What is a female penguin called? ›

Adult male penguins are sometimes called co*cks, females sometimes called hens; a group of penguins on land is a waddle, and a group of penguins in the water is a raft.

Do emperor penguins cry? ›

It comes out their nose in super salty tears! So, penguins do sort of cry, but from their nose not their eyes.

How do penguins survive blizzards? ›

Thick, windproof or waterproof coats

Many Antarctic animals have a windproof or waterproof coat. Emperor penguins are a very good example. These birds have 4 layers of scale-like feathers. The layers overlap each other to form a good protection from the wind, even in blizzard conditions.

Can penguins survive in freezing? ›

Penguins have the highest density of feathers per unit area of any bird. This fat layer is the best form of internal insulation yet devised by mother nature - and therefore the best way to keep warm in water. It keeps all warm-blooded cold water animals operational down to minus 1.9°C (25.8°F).

How will penguins be affected by global warming? ›

When sea ice breaks up before their chicks have matured and grown their waterproof feathers, chicks that are swept into the ocean are likely to die. For adults, the loss of sea ice can lead to lower food availability, which can result in increased mortality.

Why do penguins need ice? ›

As the largest living species of its kind, emperor penguins need the ice to remain stable for a long period of time so that their chicks can fully develop. After arriving at their breeding sites in April each year, the ice must stay intact until the chicks have fledged by January.


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