New penguin colonies discovered – from space

Looking downy: Penguins mate for life and produce just one or two chicks per year. © Getty

Is this good news for humans? Emperor penguins are the world’s early warning system. Could the discovery of new colonies give us any hope that Earth has begun to reverse the climate crisis?

Hurtling through space, far above the Antarctic, the Sentinel-2 satellite beamed back infrared images of something thrilling to scientists on Earth: penguin droppings. The staining of large patches of sea ice indicated that there were eight new colonies no one had known about – and confirmed the existence of three others that had only been suspected.

The discovery means that there are up to 10% more Emperor penguins than was previously thought, giving a new total of over half a million birds. For lovers of a species classified as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it was hugely significant.

The largest penguin species lives on the world’s shrinking supply of sea ice – and the fate of the penguins gives humanity a clear warning about the planetary effects of burning fossil fuels.

To thrive, they need what is known as a “Goldilocks zone”: ice which is thick and flat enough to provide a stable platform for raising their chicks, but thin enough to create openings through which the birds can dive in search of food.

So, is the latest discovery good news for humans?

Floe charts

Some say yes. One scientist has compared penguins to the canary in a coal mine: their survival has a direct link to ours. While the exciting discovery of more birds clearly does not mean that Earth is healing itself, it does put more high-profile pressure on national leaders to take urgent action on global temperatures.

Others are more pessimistic. Even if we reach no more than 1.5% above pre-industrial temperature levels – the best-case scenario under the Paris Agreement – the resulting destruction of the sea ice means numbers of Emperor penguins are likely to drop by 30 per cent. The discovery of a few more penguins will make no difference to this.

You Decide

  1. What is the worst journey YOU have ever been on?

Activities

  1. Penguins huddle together for warmth, taking it in turns to shield each other. Paint a picture of a penguin huddle.

Some People Say...

“Penguins are nature’s satire on humanity, which is why we love them.”

Sara Wheeler, British writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most agree that Emperor penguins are the most impressive divers and swimmers of all seabirds. They often reach more than 250 metres below the surface – one has even been recorded at a depth of 565 metres. Propelled by their flippers, they have a cruising speed of 10km per hour in water. Emperors are also thought to be the only birds never to set foot on land, as their colonies are all on the sea ice.
What do we not know?
Whether penguins have a uniquely strong parental instinct. Males as well as females are involved in the hatching of eggs: for the final two months before a chick appears, the egg is cared for by the male while the female goes hunting for food. Males are so desperate to be involved in this process that they sometimes care for egg-shaped stones or pieces of ice if no real egg is available. It is not unknown for two males to raise a chick together.

Word Watch

Sentinel-2
A mission launched by the European Space Agency to take photographs of land and coastal waters, monitoring pollution and deforestation among other things.
Infrared
A type of electromagnetic radiation (a wave with electricity). The wave is longer than light which humans can see and shorter than microwaves.
Classified
Arranged in classes, groups, or types.
International Union for Conservation of Nature
Association of 1,400 organisations from different parts of the world, devoted to conservation ecology and sustainable development.
Planetary
Relating or belonging to a planet or planets.
Goldilocks zone
In the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks wants her porridge to be not too hot and not too cold.
Canary in a coal mine
In the early days of coal mining, miners took a caged canary with them. If there was a leak of gas, the canary would be affected first, warning the miners that they were in danger.
Pessimistic
Tending to see the worst of things or believe that the worst will happen.
Pre-industrial
A time before there were machines and tools to help perform tasks on a large scale. The Industrial Revolution, occurring from 1750-1850, changed that.
Scenario
A specific possibility.
Paris Agreement
An agreement signed by 188 countries and the EU in 2016 to try to limit global warming. In 2017, President Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from it, a decision which comes into effect this November.

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