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Emperor penguins on Antarctica's Snow Hill Island, at the Weddell Sea. Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

A "catastrophic" breeding failure has devastated the emperor penguin colony at Halley Bay in the Weddell Sea of Antarctica, with no chicks surviving during each of the past 3 years, scientists said on Thursday.

Why it matters: This particular emperor penguin colony was previously the second largest in the world, with 15,000 to 24,000 breeding couples visiting the site annually. But the colony "has now all but disappeared," British Antarctic Survey researchers said in a statement accompanying the publication of their study in the journal Antarctic Science. Adult penguins have since fled the island, they said.

What they did: The scientists used high-resolution satellite data to track the penguin colony, including using markings from penguin guano that's visible from space (it tints brightly colored snow a brownish color) to get an idea of the colony size.

  • "Our specialized satellite image analysis can detect individuals and penguin huddles, so we can estimate the population based on the known density of the groups to give [a] reliable estimate of colony size,” study lead author Peter Fretwell said in a press release.

What they found: The researchers found that repeat episodes of early sea-ice breakup in the area are the likely cause of the breeding failure. Sea ice broke up in October 2016, for example, "well before any emperor chicks would have fledged," the BAS stated.

This pattern occurred again in 2017 and 2018, the study found.

The big picture: Since the incident, scientists discovered the nearby Dawson Lambton colony has ballooned in size, indicating many of the adult emperor penguins have moved there.

  • What is important about this observation is that Halley Bay is a colony located far south in the Weddell Sea, in a location that we might expect to be a climate refuge for emperors, as the planet continues to warm," study co-author Phil Trathan tells Axios.
  • "'Seeing events such as we describe is therefore important, as it means that even in areas previously thought safe, occasional events can have important consequences."

Why you'll hear about this again: Study co-author Phil Trathan, tells Axios it's not clear whether the changes in sea-ice conditions at Halley Bay were specifically related to climate change. However, modeling based on climate change projections shows significant declines in emperor penguin populations in Antarctica.

Go deeper

DOJ watchdog to probe whether officials sought to alter election results

Donald and Melania Trump exit Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 20. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department's inspector general will investigate whether any current or former DOJ officials "engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome" of the 2020 election, the agency announced Monday.

Driving the news: The investigation comes in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged Jeffrey Clark, the head of DOJ's civil division, had plotted with President Trump to oust acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen in a scheme to overturn the election results in Georgia.

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Google's chief health officer Karen DeSalvo on vaccinating America

Google on Monday became the latest Big Tech company to get involved with COVID-19 vaccinations. Not just by doing things like incorporating vaccination sites into its maps, but by helping to turn some of its offices and parking lots into vaccination sites.

Axios Re:Cap goes deeper into what Google is doing, and why now, with Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Google's chief health officer who previously worked at HHS and as health commissioner for New Orleans.

Biden signs order overturning Trump's transgender military ban

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

President Biden signed an executive order on Monday overturning the Trump administration's ban on transgender Americans serving in the military.

Why it matters: The ban, which allowed the military to bar openly transgender recruits and discharge people for not living as their sex assigned at birth, affected up to 15,000 service members, according to tallies from the National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender American Veterans Association.