The worlds of volcanology and zoology have collided, and it’s not good news. A volcanic eruption on a tiny island in the sub-Antarctic is threatening the lives of millions of penguins, and short of sending a fleet of battleships to the island to rescue the waddling wonders, it appears as if they may all be doomed.
Zavodovski Island is home to 1.2 million chinstrap penguins, which makes it their largest colony in the world by far. They are also cohabiting with 180,000 macaroni penguins, another sizeable colony. The active volcano here has been blowing vast clouds of ash back onto itself since March, and it doesn’t currently show any signs of stopping.
Making matters worse, a second volcanic mound on Bristol Island, just south of Zavodovski, is contributing its own ash to the impending penguin apocalypse. Fishing vessels have been capturing photographs of the eruptions, while satellite images have confirmed that between one-third and half of the island has so far been covered in ash.
Normally, penguins would be able to escape into the sea, but the adult chinstraps are currently molting, which means that they are not currently waterproof or able to properly insulate themselves against the frigid sub-Antarctic waters. They’re stranded, and breathing in the volcanic ash will lacerate the insides of their lungs and block their airways.
“As the images were captured during the molt period for the chinstraps, the consequences could be very significant,” Mike Dunn, a penguin ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey, said in a statement. “When the penguins return to breed later in the year, it will be interesting to see what impact this event has on their numbers.”
The eruption at Zavodovski Island, as captured by fisherman David Virgo. BAS
At just 5 kilometers (3 miles) across, Zavodovski Island is one of the world’s smallest pieces of isolated land, part of the South Sandwich Islands group, a British Overseas Territory that has no permanent residents. It is, however, home to a small contingent of staff from the BAS, and who, among other things, monitor the thriving penguin colonies on the island.
The stratovolcano there is sometimes given the name Mount Asphyxia, which is said to have come from the combined stench of pungent penguin poop and the sulfurous fumes that occasionally escape from the mouth of the volcano. Argentinian hydrographic publications use the name Mount Curry – named after an Argentinian sailor who lost his life in naval combat – as do other publications, including the BAS.
According to the BAS, a rather powerful and shallow earthquake occurred on the island last month, which in retrospect was probably caused by vast amounts of magma forcing its way up through the crust. If this is indeed the case, it’s unlikely the eruption will calm down in the near-future.
Macaroni penguins. Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock