Last updated at 11:44 PM on 12th July 2008
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Tens of thousands of newly-born penguins are freezing to death as Antarctica is lashed by freak rain storms.
Scientists believe the numbers of Adelie penguins may have fallen by as much as 80 per cent – and, if the downpours continue, the species will be extinct within ten years.
And the Emperor penguin – made famous in the Oscar-winning documentary March Of The Penguins – is also under threat.
Temperatures on the Antarctic peninsula have risen by 3C over the past 50 years to an average of -14.7C and rain is now far more common than snow.
Adelie penguins are born with a thin covering of down and it takes 40 days for them to grow protective water-repellent feathers. With epic rains drenching their ancestral nesting grounds, their parents try to protect them. But when the adults leave to fish for food, or are killed by predators such as seals, the babies become soaked to the skin and die from hypothermia.
'Everyone talks about the melting of the glaciers but having day after day of rain in Antarctica is a totally new phenomenon. As a result, penguins are literally freezing to death,' said Jon Bowermaster, a New York-based explorer who has recently returned from Antarctica.
'If it had been snow, like in the old days, their down would be perfectly equipped to cope. But they can't take rain. It's like wearing a down jacket that gets soaking wet.
'At night, the temperature would dip and the next morning we'd find them dead from hypothermia.
'Other marine creatures like seals in the Antarctic are born with fur, but penguin chicks have nothing to protect them.
'It is all very well talking theoretically about how the ice cap could disappear – but watching penguins walking among the skeletons of their young is the most powerful evidence of climate change I have seen.'
Biologist Professor P. Dee Boersma, of the University of Washington in Seattle, has published a study in the magazine BioScience in which she says that the warming climate is also threatening the Emperor penguin.
She visited East Antarctica in December 2006 – less than two years after March Of The Penguins was shot – and says it would be unrecognisable to anyone who saw the film.
'I saw no Emperor penguin chicks, no sea-ice and fewer than a dozen small icebergs.
I was just shocked,' she said.
'It was the first time our expedition leader had seen the area free of ice since he started going there in the Eighties.
'There was no way chicks could have survived. In late September, when they would have been little more than half grown, we were told a large storm had hit the area. Emperor chicks are similar to the Adelie – they are downy and not waterproof and could not survive in the cold sea for any period of time.
'These penguins are sentinels who are showing we really are looking at big changes in the world's climate.'
Athena Dinar, a spokeswoman for the British Antarctic Survey, said that 50 years ago two days of snow were recorded for every one day of rain at the region's Faraday meteorological station. 'Now, in the past few years, the trend is two days of rain to every one day of snow.'