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Colonially-breeding seabirds have long served as indicator species for the health of the oceans on which they depend. Abundance and breeding data are repeatedly collected at fixed study sites in the hopes that changes in abundance and productivity may be useful for adaptive management of marine resources, but their suitability for this purpose is often unknown. To address this, we fit a Bayesian population dynamics model that includes process and observation error to all known Adelie penguin abundance data (1982-2015) in the Antarctic, covering >95% of their population globally. We find that process error exceeds observation error in this system, and that continent-wide "year effects" strongly influence population growth rates. Our findings have important implications for the use of Adelie penguins in Southern Ocean feedback management, and suggest that aggregating abundance across space provides the fastest reliable signal of true population change for species whose dynamics are driven by stochastic processes.