The second-biggest breeding ground for Antarctica's emperor penguins is now almost completely deserted after a 2016 catastrophe, researchers say. Satellite photos show that the Halley Bay colony in the Weddell Sea, where around 8% of the world's emperor penguins normally breed, disappeared almost overnight, the BBC reports. Researchers believe thousands of penguin chicks drowned when sea ice broke up in severe weather before the chicks had developed the right feathers to swim. After the disaster, researchers say, there was no breeding at the site in 2016 or 2017 and very little last year, the AP reports. In a normal year, up to 24,000 breeding pairs of penguins flock to the site, where they incubate eggs and tend to chicks on the ice.
In a study published in the journal Antarctic Science, researchers say many, but not all, of the penguins have shifted to the nearby Dawson-Lambton breeding area. Researchers say the collapse of the Halley Bay colony does not appear to be directly linked to climate change, but it is worrying because the area, one of the coldest parts of Antarctica, was seen as a relatively safe haven from rising temperatures. "We've never seen a breeding failure on a scale like this in 60 years," study author Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey, tells the AP. "It's unusual to have a complete breeding failure in such a big colony." The BBC notes, however, that with the Brunt ice shelf soon to calve a huge iceberg, the colony could have been doomed in any case. (Read more emperor penguins stories.)