To investigate the role of sea ice cover on penguin populations we used principal component analysis to compare population variables of Adélie (Pygoscelis adeliae) and chinstrap (Pygoscelis antarctica) penguins breeding on Signy Island, South Orkney Islands with local (from direct observations) and regional (from remote sensing data) sea ice variables. Throughout the study period, the Adélie penguin population size remained stable, whereas that of chinstrap penguins decreased slightly. For neither species were there significant relationships between population size and breeding success, except for an apparent inverse density-dependent relationship between the number of Adélie breeding pairs and the number of eggs hatching. For both species, no general relationship was found between either population size or breeding success and the local sea ice conditions. However, the regional sea ice extent at a particular time prior to the start of the breeding season was related to the number of birds that arrived to breed. For both species, this period occurred before the sea ice reached its maximum extent and was slightly earlier for Adélie than for chinstrap penguins. These results suggest that sea ice conditions outside the breeding season may play an important role in penguin population processes.