Critics Challenge Climate Scientist’s Claim That Antarctic Iceberg Killed 150,000 Penguins

By Barbara Hollingsworth | February 17, 2016 | 4:04pm EST
Adelie penguins in Antarctica. (AP photo)

Correction: The quote in the third paragraph was incorrectly attributed to the original study published in Antarctic Science, instead of a Feb. 13, 2016 article on the study published in the Sydney Morning Herald. 

A Feb. 12 press release by UNSW stated that "Adelie penguin numbers at Cape Denison in Antarctica have crashed from more than 160,000 birds to just a few thousand following the grounding of a giant iceberg in Commonwealth Bay."

( – A scientific team led by Christopher Turney, a professor of climate science at Australia’s University of South Wales (UNSW), claims that a giant iceberg caused by the effects of global warming decimated a colony of Adelie penguins by blocking their way to feeding grounds off the eastern coast of Antarctica.

But some critics are challenging that assertion, pointing out that the penguins may have just migrated to happier hunting grounds.

“More than 150,000 Adelie penguins have perished in a single colony in Antarctica after the grounding of a giant iceberg” five years ago, Turney and fellow researchers from UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre and New Zealand’s West Coast Penguin Trust wrote in an article published this month in the British peer-reviewed journal Antarctic Science.

Turney was the leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014 that went to Antarctica to update the scientific records compiled a century ago by Sir Douglas Mawson, including a census of the penguin population at Cape Denison.

Turney said that gathering the new data was critical because it would allow climate scientists to document the effects of global warming on Antarctica.

The expedition’s Russian ship - with dozens of climate scientists aboard – had to be rescued after it got stuck in ice for 10 days.

The B09B iceberg, which broke off of the Ross Ice Shelf in 1987, ran aground off Cape Denison in Antarctica’s Commonwealth Bay in 2010, filling the bay with ice and blocking the penguins’ access to the open sea.

"The arrival of iceberg B09B in Commonwealth Bay, East Antarctica, and subsequent fast ice expansion has dramatically increased the distance Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) breeding at Cape Denision must travel in search of food," according to the study.

"Whilst some 5,520 pairs still breed at Cape Denison, there has been an order of magnitude decline in Adelie numbers in the area in comparison to the first counts a century ago and, critically, recent estimates based on satellite images and a census in 1997." 

Satellite view of B09B iceberg in Antarctica's Commonwealth Bay. (NASA)

“Hundreds of abandoned eggs were noted, and the ground was littered with the freeze-dried carcasses of the previous season’s chicks,” the article continued, predicting that the colony could be completely wiped out in 20 years.

Turney told the Sydney Morning Herald that the remaining penguins “were incredibly docile, lethargic, almost unaware of your existence. The ones that are surviving are clearly struggling.”

However, the study acknowledged that “abandoned Adelie penguin colony sites are common,” and stated that another penguin colony located about five miles away was “thriving”.

Kerry-Jane Wilson, the study’s lead author, did not respond to an email from, asking her: “How do you know that that the 150,000 Adelie penguins missing from Cape Denison died? Isn't it possible that some or even most of them left the area and migrated to areas along the coast where they had access to food?”

Turney’s claim that the iceberg caused the deaths of 150,000 penguins in the Cape Denison colony was challenged by LiveScience’s Becky Oskin.

"Let's give the penguins a little credit," she wrote in a Feb. 16 article in Discovery. "There's no proof yet that the birds are dead. No one has actually found 150,000 frozen penguins." 

Adelie penguins. (Wikipedia)

Oskin quoted Michelle LaRue, a penguin population expert at the University of Minnesota, who said that "just becasue there are a lot fewer birds observed doesn't automatically mean the ones that were there before have perished. They easily could have moved elsewhere, which would make sense if nearby colonies are thriving.”

In a 2013 study of Adelie penguins on Beaufort Island in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, LaRue and her colleagues found that penguins appeared to benefit from climate change because their numbers had increased 84 percent over the previous five decades.

Related: Ship Retracing 1911 Antarctic Expedition Stranded in South Pole’s Summer Ice



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