Climate Change Affects Chinstrap Penguins In The Antarctic
November 7, 2012

Chinstrap Penguin Populations Threatened By Climate Change, Not Tourism

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

New research, partially funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), shows that the breeding population of chinstrap penguins has significantly declined as temperatures have increased on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Changing climatic conditions, rather than the impact of tourism, has the greatest effect on the chinstrap population. The findings of this study, conducted by a research team with the Antarctic Site Inventory (ASI), have been published in the journal Polar Biology and are based on an analysis of data collected on Deception Island in December 2011. Deception Island is one of Antarctica's busiest tourist destinations.

“We now know that two of the three predominant penguin species in the peninsula - chinstrap and Adelie - are declining significantly in a region where, in the last 60 years, it´s warmed by 3 degrees Celsius annually and by 5 degrees Celsius in winter,” said Ron Naveen, founder of Oceanites, Inc. “By contrast, Gentoo penguins are expanding both in numbers and in range. These divergent responses are an ongoing focus of our Inventory work effort.”

Since 1994, the ASI has been collecting and analyzing data on the penguin population across the Antarctic Peninsula. These new findings have important implications both for the advancement of Antarctic science and the management of Antarctica by the Antarctic Treaty nations, of which the U.S. is a signatory. ASI is the only current science team tracking penguin population throughout the entire Antarctic Peninsula region.

“Our Deception Island work, using the yacht Pelagic as our base, occurred over 12 days and in the harshest of conditions - persistent clouds, precipitation and high winds, the latter sometimes reaching gale force and requiring a lot of patience waiting out the blows. But, in the end, we achieved the first-ever, one-season survey of all chinstraps breeding on the island,” Naveen said.

It has been speculated that tourism's negative impact was a deciding factor on the decline of chinstrap breeding population, especially at Deception Island's largest colony known as Baily Head. Deception Island's census of chinstrap penguins was overseen by Naveen, while the analysis was undertaken by Heather Lynch, of Stony Brook University. Lynch says this new research sheds light on the massive changes occurring in this region.

“Our team found 79,849 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins at Deception, including 50,408 breeding pairs at Baily Head. Combined with a simulation designed to capture uncertainty in an earlier population estimate, there is strong evidence to suggest a significant decline, greater than 50 percent, in the abundance of chinstraps breeding at Baily Head since 1986-87."

“The decline of chinstrap penguins at Baily Head is consistent with declines in this species throughout the region, including at sites that receive little or no tourism; further, as a consequence of regional environmental changes that currently represent the dominant influence on penguin dynamics, we cannot ascribe any direct link in this study between chinstrap declines and tourism.”

Lynch also analyzed high resolution satellite imagery, along with the census data collected by Naveen. Images for the 2002-2003 and 209-2010 seasons show a 39 percent decline.

Lynch adds, “While there has been considerable focus in the policy and management community about the potential impact of tourism on these penguin populations, we cannot forget the overwhelming evidence that climate is responsible for the dramatic changes that we are seeing on the peninsula. If tourism is having a negative impact on these populations, it´s too small an effect to be detected against the background of climate change.”