Revealed! How penguins survived the ice age

Antarctica scientists discover how penguins survived the ice age

A climate change study has located what was likely to have been the refuge for one of only three populations of emperor penguins which survived the last ice age.

The Ross Sea in Antarctica is thought to have been a shelter for emperor penguins for thousands of years during the last ice age, about 19,500 to 16,000 years ago, when much of the rest of Antarctica was uninhabitable due to the amount of ice.

The findings, published in the journal Global Change Biology, suggest that while current climate conditions may be optimal for emperor penguins, conditions in the past were too extreme for large populations to survive. Words: PA

A team of researchers, led by scientists from the universities of Southampton, Oxford, Tasmania and the Australian Antarctic Division, and supported in Antarctica by Adventure Network International, examined the genetic diversity of modern and ancient emperor penguin populations in Antarctica to estimate how they had been changing over time.

The species is famed for its adaptations to its icy world, breeding on sea ice during the Antarctic winter when temperatures regularly drop below minus 30C (minus 22F).

But the team discovered that conditions were probably too harsh for emperor penguins during the last ice age and that the population was roughly seven times smaller than today and split up into three refugial populations.

Gemma Clucas, a PhD student from Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton and one of the lead authors of the paper, said: "Due to there being about twice as much sea ice during the last ice age, the penguins were unable to breed in more than a few locations around Antarctica.

"The distances from the open ocean, where the penguins feed, to the stable sea ice, where they breed, was probably too far. The three populations that did manage to survive may have done so by breeding near to polynyas - areas of ocean that are kept free of sea ice by wind and currents."

One of these polynyas that supported a population of emperor penguins throughout the last ice age was probably in the Ross Sea. The researchers found that emperor penguins that breed in the Ross Sea are genetically distinct from other emperor penguins around Antarctica.

Jane Younger, a PhD student from the Australian Institute for Marine and Antarctic Sciences, said: "Our research suggests that the populations became isolated during the last ice age, pointing to the fact that the Ross Sea could have been an important refuge for emperor penguins and possibly other species too."

Climate change may affect the Ross Sea last out of all regions of Antarctica. Due to changes in wind patterns associated with climate change, the Ross Sea has in fact experienced increases rather than decreases in the extent of winter sea ice over the last few decades, although this pattern is predicted to reverse by the end of the century.

Dr Tom Hart, from the University of Oxford, said: "It is interesting that the Ross Sea emerges as a distinct population and a refuge for the species. It adds to the argument that the Ross Sea might need special protection."

Ten of the best: Ice hotels
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Revealed! How penguins survived the ice age

If remote and romantic are two of your musts, then this newcomer to the ice hotel scene should suffice. 2000m above sea-level, and accessed only by cable car, the Lake Balea ice hotel is a 10-14 room igloo which is reconstructed out of the frozen lake every season. Sleeping arrangements are surprisingly Dr Zchivago-esque with rich fur stoles (and thermal sleeping bags) arranged on top of your ice mattress.

There's also an ice church close-by for those who might feel inclined to prayer for warmer climes and an ice bar for those more content with a hot toddy before bedtime.

Stay in an igloo made for two in this low-key, budget-friendly option. What it lacks in style, the snow pods at Kakslauttanen make up for in price - coming in considerably cheaper than many of its rivals. The package here can also include a wide-range of snow activities - from a Winter safari to ice fishing and snowboarding, as well as being one of the best located to catch the Northern Lights. The resort's glass snow domes offer a more luxe option - the futuristic forrest village of geodesic domes is a sight to behold.

Kipping in constant temperatures of between -4C and -7C can be surprisingly comfortable when you're wrapped up in reindeer hide, although the Alta Snow Hotel recommends that your bring your woollen undies as a fall-back. A smaller version of Sweden's ice hotel, the Alta is known for its intricate ice sculptures, but it's the unique opportunity to watch the Aurora Borealis from right outside your igloo door that's the real selling point here.

Canada's only ice hotel celebrates its 10th anniversary this season (January to March) with its most ambitious reconstruction yet; with the site set to include a vast multi-media igloo and an adult-sized snow slide to boot. The concept for the Hotel de Glace is a combination of indigenous Inuit igloo construction and Nordic influences; which are echoed throughout the 36 unique rooms and suites. Thankfully an outdoor spa, including that all important sauna, on hand to help keep your spirits up, but for those who miss their home comforts Suites come with their own log fireplace (but let's face it: heating's cheating).

A snow hotel is one thing, but it pales into comparison next to the effort put into create an entire village. In the Finnish resort of Yllas, besides the 15 bedrooms and suites, there is a restaurant, a bar, lobby and outdoor slide and sculpture park. In the hotel, the ambient lighting takes its inspiration from the Northern Lights and you can counter-balance the potential frost bite with a morning sauna and a hot berry juice.

Honeymooning in -5 temperatures may not be everyone's idea of a romantic getaway but booking the honeymoon suite at the Lumilinna Snow Castle as least shows some imagination; the elaborate castle carved from ice is fit for any snow queen. The Snow Chapel will also oblige with a winter wedding, should you feel particularly swept away.

If its a holiday of extremes you're after, how about dipping your toes in the Med one minute and then two hours later, wrapping up against sub zero temperatures? In the Andorran ski resort of Grandvalira you can spend the night in an Igloo village run by Iglu Dorf - and in the day head back down to Barcelona in just a couple of hours. There's mulled wine and fondue on-hand, as well as a hot tub to keep you toasty.

Combine skiing in the Alps with an overnight stay at the very reasonably priced Schneedorf - Austria's first foray into the realms of ice hospitality and one of many strange lumpy white domes now populating the Alpine landscape. Furnished simply and with flourishes of snow sculpture, the hotel is perfect for skiers who want to be up and at it early, as well as the less-active who just want to soak up the gluhwein from the warm safety of the hot tub.

The best way to approach the remote Kirkeness ice hotel is with the spirit of an explorer - because just reaching the location in the northern most tip of Finland, right up on the border with Russia, is some expedition in itself. Enduring a night's sleep in sub-zero temperatures is a whole other matter; good job there's an ice bar on stand-by for the obligatory shot of dutch courage before you bunk down for the night.

The original ice hotel in Jukkasjarvi is as much art installation as it is an experience. Welcoming its first overnight guests in 1992 the Ice Hotel continues to grow its ambition - creating an entire adventure based around their location 200 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. Recreated every winter from the frozen River Torne, with a new collective of artists and designers, the hotel takes on an entirely new theme and is considered the most luxurious in its category (the resident's Absolut Vodka bar has become an institution in itself). Visitors arriving in early December will see the new hotel start to take shape, with the construction taking several weeks to complete.


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Places where it never gets cold
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Revealed! How penguins survived the ice age
Beautiful Hawaii boasts world-class surfing, spectacular waterfalls and active volcanoes, as well as a hot climate. Temperatures at sea level generally range from highs of 29 to 32C during the summer months to 26 to 28C during the winter months. Rarely does the temperature rise above 32C or drop below 18C. To see snow in winter, you will have to head for the islands' highest mountains.
You won’t get snow in Puerto Rico. Only palm trees, white sand, sunshine and year-round temperatures of 24 to 31C. The tropical climate can get humid in the summer months and Puerto Rico experiences the Atlantic hurricane season (June to November) with a hurricane passing the vicinity of the island on average every 11 years. Only one Category 5 hurricane has struck the island since 1851, the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of September 1928.

Like the rest of the Caribbean, the tiny island of Saint Lucia boasts a warm, tropical climate all year round. Trade winds stop things becoming too hot with temperatures ranging from 21 to 32C. The wet season is generally at the same time as the Atlantic hurricane season (June to November). The most humid weather can be found in the rainforest in the centre of the island, while a hike to the Pitons will help you cool off. 

Sitting on the eastern coast of Central America, Belize enjoys a comfortable tropical climate with an average yearly temperature of 29C with only about 4C between the coolest (January) and warmest (May) part of the year. The coastal breezes help ease high humidity levels. With consistent temperatures all year round, Belize only has two seasons, the wet (from June to December) and the dry (February to May).

Separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula enjoys warm weather all year round at a steady 27C and seasonal fluctuations of just 4 to 6C either side. It does lie within the Atlantic Hurricane Belt and with almost uniformly flat terrain is vulnerable to large storms coming from the east.

Lying just to the south of the Equator, this archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean stays warm and humid throughout the year with temperatures rarely dropping beneath 24C or rising above 32C. The seasons are controlled by trade winds and the Seychelles does not experience extreme weather conditions.

Durban, the largest city in KwaZulu Natal, boasts an average of 320 days of sunshine a year. Temperatures range from 16 to 25C in winter and from 23 to 33C in summer, with January the hottest and most humid month. The warm Mozambique current flowing along the coast means the water temperature rarely falls below 17C even in winter. The city is occasionally affected by tropical storms during the cyclone season (November to April).

These picturesque islands in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef enjoy a subtropical climate with an average annual temperature of 27C and lots of sunshine. Summer in January sees an average temperature of over 30C in Australia's Whitsunday Islands, with the water temperature not far off.

You’ll never see snow on the tropical island nation of Fiji in the South Pacific. Maximum temperatures rarely move out of the 26 to 31C range all year round. Southeast trade winds from March to November bring dry weather and the rainy season runs from December to April, which overlaps with the tropical cyclone season.

The temperature hardly ever changes in the Maldives, averaging a warm and humid 30C throughout the year. That’s thanks to their equatorial location, which also keeps them out of the firing line of cyclones. The tropical equatorial climate has two seasons, with the highest temperatures occurring during the dry season (November to March).


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