Will Climate Change Increase Antarctica’s Biodiversity — Or Diminish It?

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 15, 2014 15
Penguin on rock

While we all know what’s happening with the world’s polar bears, what’s going on globally with penguin populations might surprise you. ©Mark Hickey

We’ve all heard the dire predictions about the world’s polar bears: according to the U.S. Geological Survey, two-thirds of them could disappear by 2060, even under moderate projections for shrinking summer sea ice caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But what’s happening at the other pole — although not as often reported in the media — with its most iconic animals, penguins, could be just as startling.

At first glance, two recent studies that were published in January regarding the world’s penguin populations seem to be at odds: while one shows that Magellanic penguins are suffering due to climate change, another suggests that Adélie penguins may be adapting just fine.

Or are they?

In the Falkland Islands

Greenland Iceberg

Mega-icebergs are proving difficult for penguins. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

According to a study published on January 29, 2014, in the peer-reviewed science journal PLOS One, storms caused by rapid climate change are contributing to Magellanic penguin deaths.

For twenty-seven years, a team from the University of Washington and the Wildlife Conservation Society studied a multitude of factors responsible for chick mortality in the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins, a species that inhabits coastal regions of Argentina, Chile, and the Falkland Islands. Between 1983 and 2010, researchers collected data on nearly 3,500 chicks. While starvation and predation caused the majority of deaths in most of those years, heavy storms and extreme heat have taken an increasing toll over time. What stands out is that weather never used to be an important mortality factor for these birds — and now it is.

The chicks are most vulnerable between nine and forty days after hatching, when they are too large to seek shelter under their parents’ bodies but have not yet developed waterproof plumage. Baby penguins are more likely now than three decades ago to catch hypothermia during storms or succumb to excessive heat. Since 1987, Magellanic penguins have lost 20 percent of their population.

Meanwhile, farther south in the Ross Sea

In another part of Antarctica — farther south — however, the story seems to be different. The results of a second study published on January 29, 2014, in PLOS One suggests that lower summer sea ice concentrations than currently observed would benefit the foraging performance of Adélie penguins in their southernmost breeding area in the Ross Sea.

The team in this research project studied Adélie penguins over a thirteen-year period and found that the birds can mostly adapt their foraging behavior to varying amounts of seasonal sea ice coverage. Since scientists predict that sea ice coverage will shift dramatically in the coming decades — with summer coverage shrinking as oceans warm — that’s very good news.

Penguin colony

Will penguin colonies continue to fail as the climate warms? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

But Adélie penguins have a Goldilocks-like relationship with sea ice: it has to be “just right.” For the birds, sea ice is essential for finding food (it hosts prey species, such as krill, on its underside), it provides a site to rest and molt, and it eases migration. But too much sea ice, or if it is too thickly packed close to shore — especially during chick-rearing season — can be bad. Then, penguin parents have to travel farther to the ice’s edge to find food; and longer, costlier journeys mean that chicks often end up being fed less.

The data gathered during the thirteen years of this study suggest that Adélie penguins near their breeding grounds display enough behavioral plasticity to cope with a wide range of sea ice coverage, modifying their foraging trip length and frequency appropriately. But what the penguins can’t deal with very effectively is a combination of shifting sea ice and mega-icebergs — which until recently, occurred infrequently enough to be considered extreme events. From 2001 to 2005, within the time frame the team was studying the penguins, two enormous icebergs collided with the Ross Ice Shelf near the penguins’ breeding grounds at Cape Crozier, Ross Island. The bergs blocked the normal flow and formation of sea ice and upset the ocean’s food production cycles. Unable to adjust their behavior to deal with these mega-icebergs, the penguins and their chicks suffered. So it seems clear that the birds’ ability to adapt to variations in sea ice coverage does have a limit.

In yet a third, but older, study on penguin populations, large icebergs were found to be a problem for another species of penguin: emperors. The arrival in January 2001 in the southwest Ross Sea of two giant icebergs caused whole colonies of the birds to fail.

And as the poles and their oceans continue to warm at an unprecedented rate, more mega-icebergs are bound to happen.

Do you think that climate change will decrease the biodiversity found in Antarctica; or will more species be able to thrive there, thus increasing the continent’s animal and plant life? And, would more biodiversity be a good thing?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Dr.Ratikanta Maiti April 16, 2014 at 11:03 am -

    Yes, in my opinion climate change can have direct impact on biodiversity and adaptation or disminution of the species which need to researched.

  2. Mike Freeman April 16, 2014 at 4:49 pm -

    I’m not qualified to say, but on instinct you’d think it would increase it, as it probably will in other parts of the world. If the seas rise even half as high as some think, for instance, it’s almost illogical to say that wouldn’t benefit a great many shelf-dependent marine species, but, as mentioned, I have no idea.

  3. Jalil S.M. April 16, 2014 at 4:57 pm -

    It depends upon two things: 1. adoptibility of the species. 2. the speed of the climate change. Many of the hardy species may not withstand such abrupt change of temperature and associated factors. Again inherent capability of some species may help survived. Any way , it is a question of natural selection.

  4. Douglas Fink April 17, 2014 at 10:47 am -

    Years ago in an oceanography course I learned that global warming could result in a larger snow pack in Antarctica. Large areas of Antarctica are actually desert like with little precipitation & warmer air holds more moisture so more snow might accumulate. I read only recently about the relationship mentioned in the article between algae etc growing on the bottom of ice packs and the krill that feed off them. No doubt global warming will effect the area.

  5. Marta Hidalgo, MBA April 17, 2014 at 10:48 am -

    Depends. In the short run ( few hundreds of years) no. If the soil is hardy eventually there’ll be be new life (maybe not as large or as we know it) . If, however the soil does not provide , then definitely no. We can only speculate.

  6. Gregory R. Duncan, B.S., MELP April 17, 2014 at 10:50 am -

    Anthropogenic climate change will invariably harm natural biodiversity, even in Antarctica where the presumed effect of melting ice and increasing temperatures would be more plant and animal diversity. Though such a process might occur naturally over long periods of geologic time, the process is occurring at an artificially accelerated rate and natural ecological processes are being preempted. The next thing we’ll be discussing is the ethics of seeding the Antarctic continent with non-native plant and animal species. You can introduce a variety of species to a desert and it will, in the strictest sense, increase biodiversity. That doesn’t mean that it should happen, or that it is a good thing. It certainly isn’t natural. Anthropogenic climate change has the same effect, but over a slightly longer period of time.

  7. Michael Klein April 17, 2014 at 10:51 am -

    Very good question. This is something only a scientific survey could answer.

  8. Robert Mowbray April 17, 2014 at 1:01 pm -

    Climate change will probably increase Antarctica’s biodiversity, but the important question is the impact it will have (is already having) on the earth’s biodiversity. Some Antarctic species will probably become extinct because of climate change, but other species will invade probably increasing Antarctica’s biodiversity.

  9. Tyngsangai Riamei April 18, 2014 at 7:17 am -

    Every environmental impacts has both positive and negative effects.This is very good question. According to the data above, i think it may increase some species but at the cost of others.( Decline of penguin population is the best example.)
    On the other hand, if the people try to increase their ecosystem by introducing exotic species it may lead to invasion. Climate change can decrease the population of some species while it will decrease the others.( Summer and winter period)

  10. Gary Nickerson April 19, 2014 at 10:16 am -

    Good piece.

  11. Bernard Gore April 21, 2014 at 6:52 am -

    I too expect it would increase biodiversity in that region as it becomes more suitable for more species, but at a cost of losing the unique character and probably extinction of some of the species adapted to the extreme conditions.

  12. Ronald the Koala April 22, 2014 at 5:17 am -

    Because climate change is already occurring so rapidly it provides almost no opportunity for mutations within a species to occur that prove advantageous. So in a nutshell climate change is bad for almost any species with specific habitat needs. The only likely beneficiaries will be generalists (aka pests, ferals etc) such as crows, rabbits, foxes, feral cats and dogs, cockroaches etc. Not much diversity to look forward to. Grrrrr :D(
    PS Connect with me on Facebook or LinkedIn if you want to follow the trials and tribulations of one little koala battling to survive in a forest on the edge of suburbia. :D)

  13. John E. Riutta April 25, 2014 at 12:14 pm -

    The likelihood of diminishment is significant as given the isolated geography of the continent the migration of new species to it is extremely difficult.

  14. Dr Terry Moore May 2, 2014 at 12:58 am -

    Nobody should have any doubt about the existance of climate change…the dispute is why and how it is happening. Historically, this planet has seen general increases and decreases in temperature, but these changes have happened over many tens of thousands of years. Some changes have almost certainly happened suddenly as a result of asteroid strike and pole shift (see the accelerating movement of the position of the North Pole at http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/geomag/data/poles/NP.xy ) and have been accelerated by the affects of excessive plate movements causing extensive earthquake http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map/ and volcanic eruption http://www.volcanodiscovery.com/erupting_volcanoes.html activity. Currently, there are over 3,500,000 fissures in deep ocean releasing much more greenhouse gas than man produces and pole shift will increase this volume and as Australia and Antarctica move towards the Equator there will be climate change which man cannot control!

  15. Brad Bernard May 5, 2014 at 6:02 pm -

    This is a thought-provoking article. Thanks for sharing. Reguardless of the specific impacts, we should see these things before they are forever changed by humans.