Our addiction to fossil fuels is killing baby penguins

Around parts of Antarctica last year, whole colonies of emperor penguins lost the all chicks they stoically incubated through weeks of darkness, -50C temperatures, and 100 miles-per-hour winds. This sad discovery came via a combination of commercial and government satellites that scientists adapted to spy on the penguins. These iconic birds depend on sea ice as a platform for breeding and raising chicks, but as the globe is warming, the ice is melting too early. The chicks, too young to swim, are drowning.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the emperor penguin as endangered. The fact that they and other penguin species are in trouble brings up a thorny philosophical question: Why should people care about disappearing species? Often when confronting the public with critically endangered frogs or disappearing rain forest plants, scientists will warn people that some useful compound, maybe a cure for cancer, could be lurking within them. But what if an animal doesn’t have any obvious use? What if penguins aren’t helpful to humans?


The loss of any species is almost certainly irreversible. It leaves the world a lesser place for future generations. And don’t other animals have some right to exist simply for their own sake?

The penguins’ failed breeding, published recently in Nature Communications, Earth and Environment isn’t pointing to imminent extinction, but does show that if global warming continues unabated, there will be little hope for any species that depends on sea ice to hold through polar winters.

The lead author on the paper, geographer Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey, said that penguins come together to breed around April — autumn in the southern hemisphere — laying eggs that the male penguins store in a pouch as they huddle together through the coldest, harshest part of the Antarctic winter.

The females go off to get food to nourish the chicks when they hatch in August, and the vulnerable chicks will drown if the temperatures get warm enough to melt the sea ice too early. They won’t be ready to swim until December. They can also freeze to death if they get wet before their feathers mature enough to insulate them against cold water.

He said emperor penguins breed every year, but even if they get old enough to brave the water, young penguins have a high mortality rate. So breeding pairs need to produce chicks year after year for colonies to survive.

Satellites can give scientists a detailed view, sometimes with enough resolution to count individual birds. The latest research focused on the fastest-warming region, the Bellingshausen Sea, where colonies consist of 600 to 3,500 breeding pairs.

Fretwell said they’ve seen bad years and failed colonies before, but nothing like last year, when 19 colonies out of 62 failed to breed. Fretwell says 2023 looks like it’s going to be a bad year as well.

But there’s still time to restrain global warming enough to keep Antarctica habitable for its native species.

Animals can help us understand ourselves in the context of the natural world. Penguins are particularly charismatic. Their adaptations to cold are astounding, and the father birds’ polar-night vigil one of the wonders of nature.

Their disappearance might not directly influence life or death for humanity, but losing the sea ice will have long-reaching consequences. The krill that form the base of the food chain for the Southern Ocean also depend on the sea ice. Losing the Antarctic sea ice could cause a collapse of fish we depend on for food.

Yet people have reasons to care even if none of this affected our survival. Rachael Carson raised this philosophical issue in Silent Spring, arguing that the world simply was a diminished, duller place without the songs of birds filling the air in spring.

Creatures don’t have to harbor the cure for cancer or otherwise serve human needs. They enhance life on earth in a way that’s less tangible but every bit as important, and sometimes it can be hard to appreciate that until they’re gone.