Antarctic tragedy as only two Adélie penguin chicks survive breeding season

Just two chicks have survived the breeding season in a colony of Adélie penguins in Antarctica, as a changing climate begins to take its toll.

The sea ice thaws and refreezes every year and is constantly changing. In Terre Adélie (Adélie Land), it was unusually extensive this summer.

Adélies use the sea ice to dive and fish and with the extensive sea ice, they had to go further to feed their chicks.

As a result the babies starved, with the colony suffering what the World Wildlife Fund is calling a "catastrophic breeding failure".

"This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins," Rod Downie, WWF's Head of Polar Programmes, said in a statement.

"It's more like 'Tarantino does Happy Feet', with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land.

The colony's numbers have dropped in recent years after multiple failed breeding seasons. While it numbered 20,196 breeding pairs in 2013, another failed breeding season, there are now just over 18,000 breeding pairs.

Penguin scientist Dr Yan Ropert-Coudert said a glacier break-up from 2010 also contributed to the recent breeding failures.

He said it's "profoundly changed" the area near the Dumont D'Urville, the French station which borders the Adélie colony.

"The region is impacted by environmental changes that are linked to the breakup of the Mertz glacier since 2010," he said in a statement.

Penguin expert Dr Phil Lyver told Newshub it's "all part of climate change".

"And the penguins are finding it harder to feed," he said.

Adélies generally thrive in East Antarctica, with a census this year finding there were around 5.9 million birds on the coast - around 3.6 million than previously thought.

Conservationists are now calling for action, just before the annual Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) meeting, where representatives from around the world will gather to discuss proposals for a new Marine Protection Area.

Last year's meeting saw the creation of the Ross Sea MPA, which was the largest MPA ever created.

"Creating Marine Protected Areas is a really good way of setting aside areas that we just leave alone and let nature do its thing," Dr Lyver said.

WWF is hopeful the proposal for a new MPA off East Antarctica this year will be successful.

"The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adélie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable," Mr Downie said.

"So CCAMLR needs to act now by adopting a new Marine Protected Area for the waters off East Antarctica, to protect the home of the penguins."

The CCAMLR meeting starts on Monday in Hobart, Australia.