The Emperor’s New Tuxedo

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From Climate Scepticism


I’ll get my coat

As you know, Zen is my middle name. But a mini-tempest swept over my equanimity this week when I caught a bit of Thursday’s PM. The item that set me off balance was based on the paper by Fretwell et al in Communications Earth and Environment. It began thusly:

EVAN DAVIES: Very sad news which is the catastrophic death of something like 10,000 young emperor penguins. They were being raised on a piece of sea ice, it broke up, before they had developed enough to be able to swim…

Davies introduced Norman Ratcliffe, seabird ecologist at BAS and one of the study’s authors, who talked about the complete loss of sea ice in November 2022 in the Bellingshausen Sea, resulting in the loss of 4 of 5 emperor penguin colonies… “pretty tragic news for emperor penguins.”

Davies asked for perspective, and Ratcliffe informed him that 10,000 represents “about 4% of the global population,” [it’s 2% but who’s counting, and the adults are not dead] but that the Bellingshausen is not a central part of their range… “this is the first time we’ve seen a regional loss of emperor penguin breeding success.”

Ratcliffe went on to say that these types of events are normal in emperor breeding ecology but not hitherto observed on such a scale (almost complete failure in an entire region).

EVAN: And this comes back down to global warming, and Antarctic warming, which seems to be occurring at a much more extreme rate than global, than globally it does.

NORMAN RATCLIFFE: Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…. It is warming faster in the West Antarctic Peninsula yes, so it is quite difficult to disentangle the effects of natural climate variability from anthropogenic climate change. So at the moment there is quite a strong La Nina event in the Pacific, and that has global repercussions, but in the Bellingshausen Sea that leads to low pressures and more windy conditions. That makes the sea choppier, the sea ice tends to get broken up and moved around more. But the long term predictions are that with warming, sea ice will disappear more around Antarctica. So this observation we’ve made may become a more usual observation in the future, and that will have big impacts on emperor penguin distribution and population size.

Thank you, Norman Ratcliffe, for having the integrity not to nod along with Evan’s instinctive misattribution. But I do wonder just how good the long term predictions are. Antarctic winters are still going to be quite cold, I think; I find it hard to believe that sea ice will not form, even under the most extreme scenario, or that what remains will be wholly unsuitable for breeding.

The Guardian managed to imply that global warming was to blame, without quite nailing its colours to the mast:

Scientists have said emperor penguins face an uncertain future under global heating because they are so reliant on sea ice, which is projected to decline as the world’s oceans heat up.

It also reminds us that the film “Happy Feet” was based on an emperor penguin. I don’t think we needed to know that, but thanks.

““It’s a grim story,” said Dr Peter Fretwell, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey and the lead author of the research. “I was shocked. It’s very hard to think of these cute fluffy chicks dying in large numbers.

“We had predicted it for a long time. The sea ice loss has been unprecedented and far quicker than we imagined.””

Right, Doc: You were shocked. You had predicted it for a long time. But it was quicker than you had imagined. The way off the stage is over here.

Dr Jeremy Wilkinson, a sea ice physicist at the British Antarctic Survey, said the research “dramatically reveals the connection between sea ice loss and ecosystem annihilation”.

Gosh. Ecosystem annihilation? You mean there’s nothing there any more?

“Fretwell said: “What’s most devastating for me is that we know this will get worse before it gets better. This is the trajectory that we are on.

“It’s only by changing our behaviour and the amounts of fossil fuels we use will we reverse the trajectory for these emperor penguins, and many other species.

“How bad it gets is still up to us.””

Well, I’ve got a suggestion for a little bit of behaviour change. How about we pull all the scientists out of the Antarctic? Getting all those dudes and dudettes up and down the world on their seasonal jollies comes with quite a carbon footprint.

They can still tell us all how **** the world is from the office, using their satellites.

Australia’s ABC know what happened…

This sort of sudden collapse of populations driven by climate change has been documented and projected before.

“Those sorts of biological tipping points are actually quite common,” said Professor Lesley Hughes, an ecologist and climate scientist from Macquarie University.

“And the problem with climate change is that we’re seeing those biological thresholds starting to be exceeded for lots and lots of different species,” said Professor Hughes, who is also a director at the Climate Council, which advocates for stronger action on climate change.

“So, things just sort of … fall off some sort of climate cliff.”

Professor Hughes said it was clear what needed to be done to minimise the destruction.

“We just have to … very, very rapidly transition out of digging up fossil fuels, exporting them and burning them,” she said.

LOL. I really must read her paper.

Now, I’m going to surprise you by admitting that I could write everything I know about penguins on the back of a stamp. But I had a look to see what a proper birder knew about emperors. This is a quote from Roger Tory Peterson’s book Penguins (from 1979, when oil pollution was more of the zeitgeist).

Blizzards and foul weather are greater hazard to these ponderous penguins. When Edward Wilson investigated the Emperors at Cape Crozier during the Scott expeditions of 1902 and 1911, he noted a very high mortality of eggs and chicks, both years due apparently to unstable ice conditions, which kept many parents from feeding their chicks. The little things became emaciated and eventually froze to death. On the basis of these two expeditions, one could have deduced that either Emperor Penguins had the longevity of humans (70 years or more) or else were a vanishing species. Neither conclusion is correct. Today, we know that those two years recorded by Wilson were not typical. There are years, however, when there may even be a total wipeout of reproduction. This may happen when the sea ice breaks loose from the Ross Ice Shelf prematurely during a storm, and the half-grown young are carried to their destruction.

According to Wiki, only 19% of emperor chicks survive their first year. The source for this seems to be one old French study that I have not read. But it is likely to be representative I think. With emperors we are dealing with an immense cull of chicks every year. The pairs attempt to rear a single chick, and have a lot of goes at it, since the adults, once established, are quite long-lived. Wiki says 20 years.

So much so useful, ta Wiki. However, it lets itself down by picking up on the new study in a quite erroneous fashion.

A 2023 study found that more than 90% of emperor penguin colonies could face “quasi-extinction” from “catastrophic breeding failure” due to the loss of sea ice caused by climate change.

The 2023 study “found” no such thing. It said this:

Recent efforts to predict emperor penguin population trends from forecasts of sea ice loss have painted a bleak picture, showing that if present rates of warming persist over 90% of emperor colonies will be quasi-extinct by the end of this century7

In other words, the reference to 90% of colonies going “quasi-extinct” comes not from Fretwell et al but their Ref. 7, Trathan et al 2020. However, the expression is not used there, either. This is:

A climate-dependent demographic model without emigration, projected that many emperor colonies would decrease by >50% from their current size by 2100, resulting in a dramatic global population decrease (Jenouvrier et al., 2014).

*Sigh.* Let’s go and have a look at Jenouvrier et al, shall we? Here is their Figure 4, which seems to show the range of outcomes from their computer model. I will leave it to the reader to decide how well he or she believes this model describes the emperor penguin population in 2100.

I like computer games. I really do. This group of researchers are perfectly entitled to get excited about the imminent doom of their favourite flightless bird. But the rest of the world is not obligated to join the excitement, particularly if the evidence is computer games with outputs along these lines. (I don’t think “calculated” is the right verb to use.)

I don’t believe the models can accurately capture the future of sea ice off Antarctica. Sorry. But even if I did believe that, I would still snort in derision at such figures as Jenouvrier et al’s Figure 4 because, knowing nothing about penguins, I would simply tell you that the colonies will move to more secure locations, such that unless sea ice vanishes utterly, there will be no noticeable decline. Naive of me I know.

According to a press release from the Australian Antarctic Division, in the past, when there was more ice, the emperor penguin apparently had a far more restricted range than today.

…the research team discovered that conditions were too harsh even for emperor penguins during the last ice age and that the population then was roughly seven times smaller than today and split into three refugial populations.

Emperor penguin numbers only increased over the last 12,000 years as sea ice decreased around Antarctica throughout the Holocene warming period. This finding suggests that current sea ice conditions may be optimal for emperor penguins.

So – if it gets any hotter… they’re dead. If it gets any colder… they’re dead too. Poor little mites. How lucky for them that the time that is now just so happens to be the sweet spot. What are the odds? And while we’re giving up our SUVs to freeze the sea ice decline, can we ban tourist cruises from flying helicopters over the emperor colonies? Oh yeh. And let’s have no more factory fishing of krill within a couple of hundred miles of the Antarctic coastline.

Oh, the paper itself? Perhaps the reader can explain this paragraph from it to me:

Between the initial collection of Sentinel2 data in Antarctica in 2018 until 2022 the archive of imagery shows only one of the five colonies had witnessed sea ice break up earlier than December (Bryant Peninsula; 2010). One instance of break up in the five colonies in the 4 years of imagery is a likely hood on 0.04. In 2022 the loss of four out of the five sites led to an early break-up a likelihood of 0.80. [Assume “sic” for everything there that looks wrong.]

“Quick, Kevin, press the “ACCEPT” button! This one’s a keeper!”

Paragraph 2 of the Introduction included this little typo:

Their populations have never been subject to large-scale hunting, or suffered from habitat loss, overfishing or other local anthropogenic interactions in the modern eara. [sic.]

NOBODY READ IT before submission, not even the authors, is my conclusion.

This is what Fretwell et al. say about the five colonies, the top four of which had complete breeding failure.

Colony NameDiscovery YearApprox. no. of Pairs
Verdi Inlet20183000
Smyley Island20093500
Bryant Coast20142000
Pfrogner Point20191200
Rothschild IslandNot stated (since 2009)700

Great news guys! We’ve discovered five new emperor colonies!

Oh no, four of them had total breeding failure in 2022! If only we hadn’t found them with our shiny new satellite we wouldn’t be so depressed now! Ignorance is bliss.

[Edited before publication to remove a ranty page about sentimentalism in the way humans think about Nature. This was already way overlong, so that particular sub-rant will have to wait for another day.]

PS. Wait, you cry. Jit can’t fly the coop yet. He hasn’t told me what “Quasi-extinct” means.

Oh yeh. Well, it means not extinct. If you were “Quasi-dead” you’d still be alive. (It’s described as a 90% population reduction.)


Fretwell et al.

Trathan et al.

Jenouvrier et al.

“Emperor penguins – survival through the ages”

Roger Tory Peterson (1979). Penguins. Houghton Mifflin, Boston (available at

Wiki page on emperors:

PM, Thursday 24th August, 2023.

ABC coverage:

Guardian coverage: