Being a penguin isn’t easy nowadays. Changing climate, overfishing, pollution are just a number of threats which make penguin life difficult. On Zavodovski Island, part of the South Sandwich Archipelage, a new threat adds to the list. A volcano erupting there is depositing ash over one of the world’s largest penguin colonies.

One of the largest penguin colonies in the world lies on Zavodovski Island and consists of more than 2 million chinstrap penguins which breed on the slopes of Mt. Curry due to the warm ground and the richness of krill around the island. Picture: National Geographic Society
One of the largest penguin colonies in the world lies on Zavodovski Island and consists of more than 2 million chinstrap penguins which breed on the slopes of Mt. Curry due to the warm ground and the richness of krill around the island. Picture: National Geographic Society

Zavodovski Island is a small island in the South Sandwich archipelago and its volcano Mt Curry has been erupting since March 2016. The island is home to over one million chinstrap penguins – the largest colony for this species in the world. The island is part of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and uninhabited. British Antarctic Survey (BAS) recently remapped this chain of volcanic islands and was alerted to a large (7.2) magnitude earthquake last month in the vicinity. Researchers confirmed from satellite imagery that not one, but two volcanoes are erupting in the South Sandwich Islands: Mt Curry on Zavodovski Island to the north of the archipelago and Mt Sourabaya on Bristol Island to the south. Following the earthquake, fishing vessels in the area licenced by the Government of South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands, captured photos of the Zavodovski Island eruption. They show the main volcanic vent is on the western side of the island, but the prevailing wind is blowing the smoke and ash to the east, and depositing much of it on the lower slopes of the volcano. These are home to the chinstraps, closely packed in great numbers. In addition there are around 180,000 macaroni penguins.

Mt. Curry is the highest point on the island and a highly active volcano. However, eruptions have not been witnessed until now when a fishing vessel spotted this eruption. Picture: David Virgo
Mt. Curry is the highest point on the island and a highly active volcano. However, eruptions have not been witnessed until now when a fishing vessel spotted this eruption. Picture: David Virgo

Satellite images have confirmed that between one third and one half of the island has so far been covered in ash. At the time photos were taken, the adult chinstraps were moulting, shedding their old feathers for new ones and therefore unable to leave the island. Geographer Dr Peter Fretwell from BAS who was involved in the remapping of the archipelago says: “We don’t know what impact the ash will have on the penguins. If it has been heavy and widespread it may have a serious effect on the population. It’s impossible to say but two scientific expeditions are scheduled to visit the region from later this year and will try to assess the impact of the eruption.” Penguin ecologist Mike Dunn from BAS says: “As the images were captured during the moult period for the chinstraps, the consequences could be very significant. 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 South Sandwich Islands are at the eastern end of the Scotia Arc and consist of approximately 11 islands. They are home of millions of penguins who breed on the islands due to the richness of the surrounding ocean. Especially chinstrap penguins like to breed on the islands like here on Saunders Island. Picture: Michael Wenger
The South Sandwich Islands are at the eastern end of the Scotia Arc and consist of approximately 11 islands. They are home of millions of penguins who breed on the islands due to the richness of the surrounding ocean. Especially chinstrap penguins like to breed on the islands like here on Saunders Island. Picture: Michael Wenger

Source: British Antarctic Survey