As temperatures rise along the West Antarctic Peninsula and the winter sea ice blankets the ocean three months fewer per year than 30 years ago, the local ecosystem is in danger. Everything from the base of the food chain – the phytoplankton (microscopic plants and bacteria) and krill (shrimp like creatures), to one of the continent’s most iconic inhabitants, the Adelie penguins, are under threat.In recent years, the loss of sea ice in this part of Antarctica has led to a dramatic decline in the phytoplankton and devastated the krill. As a result, the population of Adelie penguins has declined 80% in the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula over the past 30 years.
There is an important lesson for us in the story of the Adelie penguins. In Antarctica, as elsewhere, subtle changes in the local environment can have devastating impacts on all the living beings that depend on it. As the global climate continues to change, we can expect to hear different versions of these kinds of impacts many times over.