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Snowmelt Reveals Remains Of Medieval Warm Period Penguins

September 30, 2020
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By Paul Homewood

From GWPF:


Researcher Steven Emslie also discovered what appears to be fresh remains of Adelie penguins, mostly of chicks. However, whether these “fresh” remains are a sign that the abandoned penguin site has become reoccupied again because of warmer conditions in recent years remains uncertain.

Mummy of Adélie penguin chick (total length ∼20 cm) on the surface of
site 5 that has been radiocarbon dated at ca. 800 calibrated calendar yr B.P. Source: Emslie 2020

Researcher Steven Emslie encountered a puzzle at Cape Irizar, a rocky cape located just south of the Drygalski Ice Tongue on the Scott Coast, Ross Sea. He found both ancient and what appeared to be fresh remains of Adelie penguins, mostly of chicks, which frequently die and accumulate at these colonies. However, the “fresh” remains were puzzling, he says, because there are no records of an active penguin colony at this site since the first explorers (Robert Falcon Scott) in 1901-1903 came to the Ross Sea.

Emslie found abundant penguin chick bones scattered on the surface, along with guano stains, implying recent use of the site, but that wasn’t possible, says Emslie. Some of the bones were complete chick carcasses with feathers, now falling apart from decay as at a modern colony, as well as intact mummies. Emslie and his colleagues collected some of these surface remains for further analysis and radiocarbon dating to try and figure out what was going on there.

The team found old pebble mounds scattered about the cape. These mounds are former nesting sites of Adélie penguins because they use pebbles to build their nests. When they abandon a site, the pebbles become scattered and stand out on the landscape, since they are all about the same size.

“We excavated into three of these mounds, using methods similar to archaeologists, to recover preserved tissues of penguin bone, feather, and eggshell, as well as hard parts of prey from the guano (fish bones, otoliths). The soil was very dry and dusty, just as I’ve found at other very old sites I’ve worked on in the Ross Sea, and also had abundant penguin remains in them. Overall, our sampling recovered a mixture of old and what appeared to be recent penguin remains implying multiple periods of occupation and abandonment of this cape over thousands of years. In all the years I have been doing this research in Antarctica, I’ve never seen a site quite like this.”

The analyses reported in Emslie’s recent paper published in Geology indicate at least three occupation periods of the cape by breeding penguins, with the last one ending at about 800 years ago. When that occupation ended, either due to increasing snow cover over the cape or other factors (the Little Ice Age was beginning about then too), the “fresh” remains on the surface were covered in snow and ice and preserved intact until recent exposure from snowmelt.

Global warming has increased the annual temperature in the Ross Sea by 1.5-2.0 °C since the 1980s, and satellite imagery over the past decade shows the cape gradually emerging from under the snow. Thus, says Emslie, “This recent snowmelt revealing long-preserved remains that were frozen and buried until now is the best explanation for the jumble of penguin remains of different ages that we found there.”

Adelies rely on ice free land to breed during the summer months. Therefore this discovery implies that this particular area has been snow free in the past, and that recent snowmelt has simply returned it to earlier conditions.

More evidence of the MWP and LIA in Antarctica.

  1. Ian Magness permalink
    September 30, 2020 10:39 am

    Historical penguin colonies move around with climate change? No schist Sherlock! Who’d have thunk it?
    I reckon the adults were all eaten by polar bears, who themselves died out due to anthropogenic global warming, er, in the MWP, um, that doesn’t really exist.
    Can I have a substantial, all expenses paid, government grant to study this please?

    • Sean permalink
      September 30, 2020 4:07 pm

      When you write your grant proposal, you’ll have to dance around the fact that polar bears are found in the Arctic, and Cape Irizar is in Antarctica, at the other ‘end’ of the planet.

      • Ian Magness permalink
        September 30, 2020 8:06 pm

        No schist Sherlock!

  2. James L. Neill permalink
    September 30, 2020 11:37 am

    Why can’t they just p.p.p.p.pick up a penguin or two?

  3. Bloke back down the pub permalink
    September 30, 2020 11:48 am

    “In all the years I have been doing this research in Antarctica, I’ve never seen a site quite like this.”
    Probably because all the other sites are still covered in snow.

  4. In the Real World permalink
    September 30, 2020 12:07 pm

    Other end of the world , but I remember reading about a Viking village being uncovered in Greenland by melting ice in the 1930s .
    The world was hotter then , and I believe the site is now under several hundred feet of ice again .
    A quick check failed to find the details , but it is possible that being ” An Inconvenient Truth ” , the report has been “disappeared “.

  5. matelot65 permalink
    September 30, 2020 3:45 pm

    This article covers the 1930s “warming” quite thoroughly.

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