Environmental factors and their interactions are likely to have shaped specific breeding and survival strategies in top predators. Understanding how climatic factors affect populations requires detailed investigation of the demographic parameters and population modelling. Here, we focus on the modelling of a southern fulmar population over a 39 year period in Terre Adélie, Antarctica, using Leslie matrix models to understand from a prospective and retrospective point of view, how vital rates and their variations, affect the cyclic population dynamics. The elasticity of population growth rate to adult survival was very high (0.95), as predicted by a slow–fast continuum in avian life histories. However, adult survival varied little between years (mean±SD: 0.92±0.07), and could not explain the strong fluctuations observed in the number of breeders and chicks. The high temporal fluctuations of the proportion of breeders (0.57±0.22) and breeding success (0.70±0.14) had the strongest impact on population dynamics, despite their weak elasticities (0.05). Before the 1980s, population fluctuations were mainly explained by a direct impact of sea-ice extent (SIE) anomalies during summer (by a threshold effect) on the proportion of breeders. After 1980s, 3 years periodic population fluctuations were best predicted by 3 years cyclic variations in the proportion of breeders. SIE showed a marked change of periodicity during the 1980s, and SIE during winter fluctuated with a 3 years periodicity during 1980–1995. The marked change in population dynamics, through a change of the variations of the proportion of breeders, may be explained in the light of a regime shift that probably occurred around the 1980s, and which affected the sea ice environment, the availability of prey, and thus the demographic parameters and population dynamics of southern fulmars.