Antarctica penguin population declining as glacier recedes and ice disappears

ANTARCTICA -- The U.S. Antarctic research base at Palmer Station has been clinging to a rocky shore since the 1960s.

There because the Adelie species of penguin has nested nearby, numbering in the tens of thousands.

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Adelie penguins

CBS News

They are the penguins that were the model for the movie “Happy Feet.” They’re apparently not so happy any more.

They call Shawn Farry the Bird Man here, but lately he’s had a lot fewer birds to count.

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Shawn Farry

CBS News

“These local islands where we’ve been censusing for, it’s 43 years now ... have declined by about 85 percent,” he said.

“The numbers on this island at their peak were almost 9,000, and this year it was about 1,200.”

At first it was though that, as the weather warmed here, the penguins might have moved further south, looking for the sea ice they need to hunt from. But they hadn’t.

“We do work other places down the peninsula, looking for them,” Farry said. “We’re not finding them.”

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Not just the sea ice is retreating. There’s a spectacular glacier next to the base that gets less spectacular every year. They keep a photo showing how it retreated from 1975 to 2013.

Then a funny thing happened -- quickly.

Normally in places like this, you talk about things moving at glacial speed, taking their time. Not here.

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The correspondent on the newly formed Dietrich Island

CBS News

Here, they know exactly when that glacier split off from a newly revealed rocky outcrop: On March 14, 2014, it became Dietrich Island.

And they’ve got photos of the moment the island emerged, when the glacier connecting it to the mainland collapsed along with the population of penguins.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.