Images of climate innovation

Emperor penguins on thin ice

This image shows emperor penguin tracks over thin ice at the Halley Bay colony near the Brunt Ice Shelf in 2017. The sea-ice here, on which penguins breed, has failed for four consecutive years leading to breeding failure of emperor penguins. British Antarctic Survey Wildlife from Space project uses very high-resolution satellite imagery to count and track the behaviour and reactions of penguins and other polar species to environmental change.

Emperor penguin tracks over thin ice at the Halley Bay colony near the Brunt Ice Shelf in 2017

The failure of sea-ice near the Brunt Ice shelf has left emperor penguins searching for other breeding sites. At the poles, sea ice is changing rapidly, reducing in extent, breaking out earlier, and becoming more unstable. Many Antarctic species rely on this ecosystem for food and as a stable breeding platform.

We use a range of remote sensing, machine learning, and deep learning techniques to automate the process of finding and counting animals in satellite imagery including multivariate classifications (penguins), object-based image analysis (whales) and convoluted neural networks (albatross).

The development of these techniques and the use of new satellites has enabled us to develop methods to track species population trends over time, making some of these animals, that live in some of the most remote environments on Earth, to be some of the best-studied. Knowledge of animal population trends and breeding behaviour is vital to understanding how species will cope with the long-term implications of climate change.

The polar regions are warming on average twice as fast as other parts of the globe and understanding how endemic polar species are adapting to these changes allows us to better predict their future numbers. Our population estimates feed into models of population dynamics and future trends. Knowing these figures enables us to call for better protection of these iconic species. For emperor penguins, our work on population, behaviour, and distribution, funded by the WWF, has helped the re-grading of the species from Near Threatened to Vulnerable in the IUCN and for the US to class the species as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

However, perhaps the most important part of our work is making robust scientific estimates which support clear messages about the present and future impact of climate change, with penguins and other wildlife as standard-bearers in the fight against climate change. 

Entrant: Peter Fretwell , British Antarctic Survey (BAS), (Mapping and GIS Information Centre)

Copyright: Satellite imagery 2021 Maxar Technologies