Physics Analysis: Penguins Jumping Off a Giant Ice Cliff

Rhett Allain
4 min readMay 6, 2024
Illustration: Rhett Allain. Penguins jumping off an ice cliff. It’s just like the title.

There’s this super awesome trailer from National Geographic about penguins. Check it out.

So apparently, these penguins have to jump off this massive ice cliff so that they can get in the water. There’s a great drone shot that shows this motion and it makes a perfect physics question.

How Tall Is the Cliff?

Yes, I know the video says it’s a 50 foot jump — but I want to figure this out for myself. Let’s start with an analysis of one of the penguin jumps. For this, I’m going to use Tracker Video Analysis. In case you aren’t familiar with video analysis, the idea is to mark the location of an object in each frame of the video. From this, we can get position-time data for the object. In the case of a falling object (like a penguin), there are three important things:

  • The frame rate. This tell us the time between frames.
  • The distance scale. I need an object of known size to get the pixel-to-distance ratio.
  • The vertical acceleration. In this case, we…



Rhett Allain

Physics faculty, science blogger of all things geek. Technical Consultant for CBS MacGyver and MythBusters. WIRED blogger.