The emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is extremely dependent on the extent and stability of sea ice, which may make the species particularly susceptible to environmental change. In order to appraise the stability of the emperor penguin populations at six colonies in the western Ross Sea, we used linear regression analysis to evaluate chick abundance trends (1983–2005) and Pearson's r correlation to assess their relation to two local and two large-scale climate variables. We detected only one significant abundance trend; the Cape Roget colony increased from 1983 to 1996 (n = 6). Higher coefficients of variation in chick abundances at smaller colonies (Cape Crozier, Beaufort Island, Franklin Island) suggest that such colonies occupy marginal habitat, and are more susceptible to environmental change. We determined chick abundance to be most often correlated with local Ross Sea climate variables (sea ice extent and sea surface temperature), but not in consistent patterns across the colonies. We propose that chick abundance is most impacted by fine scale sea ice extent and local weather events, which are best evaluated by on-site assessments. We did not find sufficient evidence to reject the hypothesis that the overall emperor penguin population in the Ross Sea was stable during this period.