As ice melts, emperor penguins march toward extinction

The flightless birds depend on Antarctica’s frozen sea ice shelves for safety and breeding. But as temperatures rise, the shelves are vanishing.

In the autumn the penguins begin their roughly six-mile journey from the ocean to their Atka Bay breeding grounds. But the warming climate is defrosting the sea ice they need to find mates, breed, and raise chicks.

First, a black dot appears in the distance. More dots join, forming meandering lines across the newly white icescape.

“Then all of a sudden, you hear the first calls,” photographer Stefan Christmann says. That’s when it really hits him: “Wow. The birds are coming back.”

It’s late March in Atka Bay, in Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land, nearly 2,700 miles southwest of the southern tip of Africa. Christmann has been waiting more than two months for the emperor penguins—the biggest of all penguins, standing about four feet tall and weighing up to nearly 90 pounds—to return from foraging at sea.

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