Bay Area researchers track emperor penguins in Antarctica to study effects of climate change

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion KGO logo
Wednesday, March 15, 2023
Bay Area researchers track Antarctica penguins to study climate change
San Jose State University researchers are tracking Emperor Penguins in Antarctica to study the effects of climate change.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- It's hard to imagine how emperor penguins project such an aura of calm and dignity, with everything happening around them. The birds were recently listed as endangered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

And now, new data suggests a marine heat event could further destabilize Antarctica's massive ice shelves -- and the penguin habitat.

Enter a team from San Jose State's Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, who recently returned to the Crozier ice shelf, to monitor the penguin with an array of tracking devices.

"We're still trying to figure that out. We're primarily collecting baseline data now, but it's some of the colonies that are further north, some of the ice that they breed on is disappearing. So that's probably going to be what one of their first challenges is, as the sea ice becomes more unreliable. If the sea ice breaks out too soon, there can be complete reproductive failure," says associate professor Birgitte McDonald, Ph.D.

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The tracking is as close to the ice endeavor that could also help verify data gathered by satellites, which have been methodically scanning the continent. Ryan Pavlik, Ph.D., is with NASA-JPL in Pasadena. He says the agency has been collaborating on a long-term observation project popularly known as the Internet of Animals.

"Which is this idea of tracking the animals, relaying their movements through a satellite back down to earth and understanding how they're moving. But actually here at JPL, and within NASA, we're looking at not just the animals, but also their habitat using a whole host of satellites. So understanding how the glaciers are responding how the forests are changing," Pavlick said.

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He says the observation network recently encountered a new challenge, coinciding with the war in Ukraine. A German team is now preparing to launch a new set of instruments into space early next year, collecting data that has now become critical for tracking changes in global habitats like Antarctica.

"And so if we notice that animals are going to one place that they didn't go to before, or they've stopped going to a place that they had been to in the past, that is an indication that something has changed there," Pavlick said.

Meanwhile, back on Cape Crozier, the researchers from San Jose State continue gathering data from tracking devices and underwater cameras to gauge the health of the penguin populations and their breeding patterns.

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"So from this study, it's not that we're learning so much about climate change, we're learning more about how climate change is going to impact the penguins," McDonald said.

And perhaps tracking changes in one of the world's most unique species and their icy habitat.

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