Penguins, Environmental Change and Antartica

There are 18 species of penguin on the planet, 8 of these reside in Antarctica and the nearby islands. Only the Emperor and Adélie live exclusively on the continent. This post will talk about the Emperor and the Adélie, also the vulnerabilities they face.

The Emperor

The emperor penguin is the heaviest and tallest of all species. Endemic to the Antarctic continent, emperor penguins rely on the marine ecosystem and sea-ice for survival and are therefore tied to their environment for survival. Environmental change is complex and therefore difficult to predict the impact of these changes on penguins.

Trathan et al, 2020.

  • The first emperor penguin was captured in 1819-1821, we have been continuously learning about them since then.
  • Emperor colonies reside in coastal locations which is almost all fast ice – they are tied to vulnerable ice cover which must remain stable throughout their breeding period.
  • Fast ice is sea ice ‘fastened’ to the coastline, to the sea floor or grounded icebergs.
  • Only one Emperor colony is fully located on land.
  • 54 Emperor colonies are so far known, approximately 595,000 adult penguins. One colony has moved in recent years due to reduced fast ice because of global warming.
  • Future climate change is expected to lead to a 30-40% reduction in sea ice area.

Adélie Penguin

The Adélie species is common along the coast of the Antarctic continent and small surrounding coastal islands. They feed on krill, fish and squid. They are the smallest species of penguin in the Antarctic and can be feisty!

Li, 2018:

  • The Antarctic Peninsula and Ross Sea are two places where Adélie’s rear their chicks yet are particularly vulnerable areas to climate change.
  • Adélie numbers have decreased on the Peninsula but increased in numbers in the Ross Sea.
  • As Adélie numbers are increasing in the Ross Sea, we call them ‘climate change winners’. An increase in phytoplankton which forms the basis of the food chain may explain increasing numbers.
  • There were 45 known colonies until 2015, with 1.45 million breeding pairs in the Ross Sea and 1.1 million pairs on the Antarctic peninsula.
  • The decrease in numbers could be due to decreasing sea ice, increasing air temperatures and decreasing phytoplankton in the Peninsula.

Scientific research is continually looking to improve the forecasting of long-term climate projections and potential implications on penguin species. I hope this post has given you an insightful introduction to the Emperor and Adélie penguins!


Li, X. (2018). ‘Responses of Adélie penguin populations to climate change and human activities in Antarctica’ Available at: Accessed on: 17/01/2021.

Trathan, P. et al. (2020). ‘The emperor penguin – Vulnerable to projected rates of warming and sea ice loss’. Available at: Accessed on: 17/01/2021.

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