PenguinScience | Climate Change

What is happening to the Penguins?

Of all the penguins in the world, two kinds need to live in the areas of Antarctica where ice forms on the ocean: the small Adélie Penguin (10 pounds) and the large Emperor Penguin (50 pounds). The lives of these penguins are being altered by changing climate.

On land, Adélies (left) are quick and can jump from rock to rock. They build nests out of small rocks. In contrast, the Emperor (right) is large, slow and clumsy. Instead of building a nest on land, one large egg is nestled in a pouch on their lower stomach. Thus, Emperors raise chicks on flat frozen ocean instead of needing to find land.

Most of Antarctica’s coast is too steep or icy even for Adélie penguins. They need gently sloping beaches. Emperor Penguins don’t climb at all, so they form colonies on the frozen sea in places where the ice will not disappear until after their chicks are grown. Antarctica is larger than the US and Mexico combined, but the total amount of nesting space available for ALL the penguins could fit within the city limits of New York, Los Angeles or London.

In winter, Antarctic seas freeze into a solid sheet, which in summer breaks into pieces called ice floes. Penguins often hang out on ice floes when they’re not swimming. In winter the Adelies must move to where there is light and open water between the ice floes in order to feed.


Penguins swim in the ocean, looking under the ice to find their food.


Emperor Penguins and climate change
We know only a little about Emperor Penguins because they lay their eggs during the dark of winter. It is very difficult for people to see Emperor Penguins at this time, except with a very strong flashlight. Emperors live so far south that the sun never rises for 3 months.
Here, through the window of a helicopter, you see clumps of Emperor penguins that are nesting on the frozen sea. The icebergs are resting on the ocean bottom and lock the sea ice in place long enough (7 months) for the chicks to grow up.

Emperors do not build nests but carry their egg and small chick in a large pouch near their feet. After a few weeks, chicks can stand on the ice but are protected by their parents from the cold. If the ice disappears before the chicks can take care of themselves they will be swept into the sea.


The Emperor Penguin colony where the movie “March of the Penguins” was filmed has been shrinking. The colony ( Pt Géologie) is located in northern Antarctica where temperatures have been steadily rising. In recent years, the ice has become too thin, and so it blows away before the chicks are grown. Therefore, fewer and fewer young penguins have been returning to live in this colony. Most Emperor Penguin colonies occur much farther south where temperatures are still very cold. This could change, however, if global warming trends continue.


Adélie Penguins and climate change
In some areas of Antarctica, warming temperatures are creating changes that  benefit Adélie Penguins. In southern portions of the Antarctic coast, areas of once impenetrable pack ice have loosened allowing penguins easier access to open water. Up north, however, along the warmer Antarctic Peninsula, sea ice habitat that Adélies depend on is disappearing.

This colony (CapeCrozier) is located at the edge of a vast sheet of land ice, sometimes 2 miles thick, which covers Antarctica. Part of this sheet, called the Ross Ice Shelf, floats on the sea just like ice floats in a glass of water. During the last ice age, when the northern and southern parts of Earth (the Polar Regions and more) were covered thickly by ice (glaciers), Adélie Penguins nested only in northern areas, as the Ice Sheet blocked penguins from nesting in many places where they nest today.

Here, the bay has become completely covered by sea ice. This colony will disappear if the ice does not break into floes, forcing the penguins to walk too far to find open water and food. As the Antarctic warms, however, the sea ice in these areas will become less extensive and the penguins will do well.


In Antarctica’s far south (RossIsland), where it is still cold, colonies have been growing. With warming temperatures and stronger winds, breaking apart the sea ice, penguins have easier access. They are moving here because they can now swim rather than walk to find food, and bring more back to their chicks.

In Antarctica’s far north (AnversIsland) air temperatures have become VERY warm and ice no longer forms on the sea. The penguins do not live well under such conditions, and each year fewer of them nest here. They are moving south to where it is colder.

Due to global climate change, sea ice off the coast of some parts of Antarctica (orange, red) has been disappearing (and so have the penguins). In other parts (blue) sea ice is becoming more open and increasing (and so have the penguins).


Eventually, as temperatures continue to warm, Adélie Penguin colonies will disappear, leaving only their nest stones behind.


As countries continue to rely on fossil fuels, the Earth will most certainly continue to warm. Places like Antarctica will change the fastest, as more and more sea ice disappears. For a while Adélie and Emperor penguins find new locations to make colonies.. But, as they relocate farther and farther south they will eventually run out of room. By the time this happens sea level will also have risen and eliminated even more of their habitat. New York, London, Amsterdam, Calcutta and many other human cities will be under water, too.

What can I do?
What we do in our daily lives affects what happens to the penguins as well as other animals and plants that live on Earth. Every time we use electricity produced by fossil fuels or drive our car we increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Carbon dioxide is one of the gases in our atmosphere that absorbs heat, contributing to global warming and climate change. Here are some websites to explore for ideas on how you can help reduce the carbon dioxide you produce.

NOTE: While Earth’s warming temperatures are causing penguins to change their lives, so is the removal of fish and whales from the ocean. We have not included that part of the story here. We thank the Antarctic programs (and their people) from France, New Zealand and the USA for some of the information in this presentation.