This Penguin Colony Has Fallen by 77% on Antarctic Islands
Scientists on a Greenpeace expedition to Antarctica found that the penguins' numbers were falling, with one colony decreasing by 77 percent in nearly 50 years. This is especially surprising because, up until now, the chinstrap penguin has been considered a species of "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), according to CNN.
"Such significant declines suggest that the Southern Ocean's ecosystem is fundamentally changed from 50 years ago, and that the impacts of this are rippling up the food web to species like chinstrap penguins," Expedition co-leader Dr. Heather J. Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. "While several factors may have a role to play, all the evidence we have points to climate change as being responsible for the changes we are seeing."
Researchers from Stony Brook and Northeastern University have been surveying the penguins on Antarctic islands using drones and handheld clickers, according to The Guardian. On Elephant Island, they found that there were only 52,786 breeding pairs, a 58 percent decrease compared to the last survey in 1971. The researchers also noted similar declines on Low and Livingston islands.
"This shows something in the marine ecology is broken, or has drastically changed since the 1970s," scientist and author Noah Strycker told The Guardian.
The researchers found that every colony on Elephant Island had declined, CNN reported. The largest decline was the fall of 77 percent recorded at a colony known as Chinstrap Camp. The reason the scientists think climate change is driving the decline is because the penguins rely on sea ice for their food.
"Penguins, seals and whales all depend on krill, which depends on ice," Stryker, who studies penguins at Stony Brook, told CNN. "So if climate change affects the ice, that impacts on everything else."
The researchers found that the chinstraps' breeding rates had not declined, meaning the threats they faced were harming them after birth, according to The Guardian. They also found that another type of penguin, the gentoo, seemed to be replacing the chinstrap. Gentoos rely less on krill and ice and have been called the "pigeon of the penguin world" for their adaptability and wide diet.
The expedition marks the first time that chinstrap colonies on Low Island have been fully surveyed, according to CNN. The full results of those surveys are not yet available.
But Greenpeace argued that the penguins' evident decline was another reason to protect 30 percent of the world's oceans to help vulnerable species recover. Alongside the research expedition, the advocacy group has been installing disappearing penguin ice sculptures in international cities from London to Washington, DC this week in order to raise awareness of the need for a Global Ocean Treaty.
"We installed a melting penguin sculpture in front of the U.S. Capitol to highlight the threats ocean wildlife is currently facing," Arlo Hemphill of Greenpeace's Protect the Oceans campaign said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. "Without protection, not only penguins are at stake but entire ecosystems are in danger from the impacts of industrial fishing, pollution, deep sea mining and climate change. We're calling on the U.S. government to support the creation of a strong Global Ocean Treaty at the United Nations to protect 30 percent of our oceans by 2030. This new treaty would create a network of sanctuaries in international waters for wildlife to recover and thrive."
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What Is Ammonium Nitrate?<p>Ammonium nitrate is a white crystalline salt that can be fairly cheaply produced from ammonia and nitric acid. It is soluble and often used as fertilizer, as nitrogen is needed for healthy plant development.</p><p>Ammonium nitrate in its pure form is not dangerous. It is, however, heat sensitive. At 32.2 degrees Celsius (89.96 degrees Fahrenheit), ammonium nitrate changes its atomic structure, which in turn changes its chemical properties.</p><p>When large quantities of ammonium nitrate are stored in one place, heat is generated. If the amount is sufficiently vast, it can cause the chemical to ignite. Once a temperature of 170 C is reached, ammonium nitrate starts breaking down, emitting nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas. Any sudden ignition causes ammonium nitrate to decompose directly into water, nitrogen and oxygen, which explains the enormous explosive power of the salt.</p>
Deadly Disasters<p>As ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive chemical, many countries strictly regulate its use. Over the past 100 years, there have been several disasters involving the chemical.</p><p>In 1921, for example, a massive blast occurred at a BASF chemical plant in Ludwigshafen in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. About 400 metric tons of a mixture of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 559 people and injuring 1,977. The plant was largely destroyed in the blast, which could be heard as far away as Munich, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) distant.</p><p>In 2015, explosions caused by ammonium nitrate ripped through the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/china-convicts-dozens-for-last-years-giant-explosions-in-tianjin/a-36324321" target="_blank">Chinese port city of Tianjin</a>. Eight hundred metric tons of the chemical were said to have been stored along with other substances in a warehouse for hazardous materials. The blasts killed 173 people and destroyed an entire city district.</p><p>Two years earlier, in 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company site in Texas, killing 14 people. And in 2001, 31 people died in Toulouse, France, in an explosion caused by the chemical.</p>
Terrorist Favorite<p>In Germany, the purchase and use of ammonium nitrate is regulated by the explosives act. This is because the cheap, highly explosive and relatively easily obtainable material has in the past been used by terrorists to carry out attacks.</p><p>For example, in 1995, U.S. conspiracy theorist and gun enthusiast Timothy McVeigh used a mixture of ammonium nitrate and other substances to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik also used ammonium nitrate in a car bomb attack in Oslo in 2011.</p>
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