The Guardian recently ran a story claiming a colony of penguins were trapped and killed by a runaway iceberg, a byproduct of global warming. The problem: none of it was true. That’s according to the Daily Beast, which writes today that major news outlets were so eager to attribute the colony’s death to global warming and a titanic-sized iceberg, they didn’t actually bother to read the study. One research ecologist called it “nuts” that some news outlets were trying to link the ‘missing’ penguins to climate change.
Whether it was CNN or The Telegraph or Examiner.com, the reports of their deaths were greatly exaggerated (with apologies to Mark Twain). That’s because the actual research paper never said the penguins were killed or trapped by an iceberg, or that global warming was behind the iceberg that somehow lead to their demise. As Dr. Michelle LaRue, a research ecologist at the University of Minnesota told the Daily Beast, “Maybe these birds moved. Maybe they died. There’s multiple scenarios that could’ve happened here. But nowhere in the paper said there was death and destruction.,” she added.
The study in question was done by the University of South Wales by Australian and New Zealand researchers, where they researched the “implication of sea ice now covering Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica.” Historically, this area was “rarely covered by sea ice.” NASA even announced last November Antarctica was gaining in size, resulting in a slower sea level rise.
Then in December 2010, a giant iceberg with the roll-off-your-tongue name B09B became grounded in Commonwealth Bay and hasn’t budged since. Because of B09B’s placement in the bay, the sea ice between the coast and the iceberg has remained unbroken and is up to three meters (about 10 feet) thick.
In normal years, the study says, the “presence of open water to the shores of Cape Denison allowed nesting Adélie penguins to feed in Commonwealth Bay and on the nearby pack ice. With the arrival of B09B. the penguins must now walk more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) to find food. In previous cases when an iceberg and sea ice altered their migratory patterns, the Adélie penguins simply moved. That’s what happened when a similar iceberg named B-15 forced a penguin colony to relocate.
Dr. LaRue, who did the initial census on the Adélie penguins two years before the South Wales study was done, says this phenomenon has caused the penguins to move a lot more than they normally do. “There’s no reason to believe a colony in a similar situation didn’t do the same thing,” she said. “It’s not as fun to report and I get that. At the same time, [the initial reports are] inaccurate. There wasn’t anything in the paper saying these animals died.”
Hoping to “nudge science reporters” in the right direction, Dr. LaRue made the rounds last week and headlines began popping up that made it sound like 150,000 penguins were either hiding from the researchers or that they had come back from the dead. Nature World News even wrote “Adélie Penguins May Have Survived Iceberg Grounding In Antarctica.”
The Daily Beast did confirm one thing, though: there will not be a spin-off to The Walking Dead entitled The Walking Penguins. “No zombie penguins, just zombie reporters,” they report. While everyone waits for the next batch of satellite photos to find out where or how dead the penguins actually are, Dr. LaRue wants readers to remember two things:
First, the South Wales research paper “never killed—or unkilled—a Tallahassee-size pride of penguins.” And second, the “rush to link the so-called kill-off to climate change—which outlets then did—is equally nuts.”
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