Emperor penguins ‘could be wiped out by climate change within 80 years’, scientists claim 

Unhappy Feet: Emperor penguins ‘could be wiped out by climate change within 80 years’, scientists claim

  • Researchers modelled the effect of different climate scenarios on the penguins
  • Melting sea ice reduces the available areas they have to raise up their young
  • Under the target 1.5°C (2.7°F) temperature rise 19 per cent of colonies vanish
  • Yet if nothing is done to mitigate climate change extinction is all but certain

Emperor penguins could be wiped out by unchecked climate change within 80 years as their icy habitat shrinks, a study has warned.

The fate of the birds — some of the most striking and charismatic creatures on Earth — is largely tied to the fate of sea ice on which they breed.

Emperor penguins will only build their colonies in very specific conditions.

Ice must be locked in to the shoreline of the Antarctic continent, while close enough to open seawater for the birds to access food for themselves and their young.

As the climate warms, this sea ice will gradually disappear — robbing the birds of their habitat, food sources and ability to hatch chicks.

Emperor penguins could be wiped out by unchecked climate change within 80 years as their icy habitat shrinks, a study has warned

‘If [the] global climate keeps warming at the current rate, we expect emperor penguins in Antarctica to experience an 86 per cent decline by the year 2100,’ said seabird ecologist Stephanie Jenouvrier of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

‘At that point, it is very unlikely for them to bounce back.’

In their research, Dr Jenouvrier and colleagues combined two existing computer models.

The first — a global climate model created by the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) — contributes projections of where and when sea ice is likely to form under different climate scenarios.

The other, a model of the penguin population itself, calculated how colonies might react to such changes in their icy habitat.

‘We’ve been developing that penguin model for 10 years,’ said Dr Jenouvrier.

‘It can give a very detailed account of how sea ice affects the life cycle of emperor penguins, their reproduction and their mortality.’

‘When we feed the results of the NCAR model into it, we can start to see how different global temperature targets may affect the emperor penguin population as a whole.’

The fate of the birds — some of the most striking and charismatic creatures on Earth — is largely tied to the fate of sea ice on which they breed

 The fate of the birds — some of the most striking and charismatic creatures on Earth — is largely tied to the fate of sea ice on which they breed

As the climate warms, sea ice will gradually disappear — robbing the birds of their habitat, food sources and ability to hatch chicks

As the climate warms, sea ice will gradually disappear — robbing the birds of their habitat, food sources and ability to hatch chicks

The researchers ran their model with three different scenarios.

The first considered a future in which average global temperatures only increased by 1.5°C (2.7°F) — the goal set out by the Paris climate accord.

The other two scenarios explored average rises of 2°C (3.6°) and around 5–6°C (9–10.8°F) — the latter being the predicted temperature increase in the ‘business-as-usual’ case where no action is taken to mitigate climate change.

Under the first scenario, the study found that five per cent of sea ice would be lost by the year 2100, causing a 19 per cent drop in the number of penguin colonies.

If the planet warms by 2°C (3.6°), however, those numbers increase dramatically, with sea ice loss nearly tripling and more than a third of existing emperor penguin colonies disappearing by the end of the century.

'If [the] global climate keeps warming at the current rate, we expect emperor penguins in Antarctica to experience an 86 per cent decline by the year 2100,' said seabird ecologist Stephanie Jenouvrier of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

‘If [the] global climate keeps warming at the current rate, we expect emperor penguins in Antarctica to experience an 86 per cent decline by the year 2100,’ said seabird ecologist Stephanie Jenouvrier of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The ‘business-as-usual’ scenario is even more dire, Dr Jenouvrier noted, with the extinction of almost all penguin colonies all but guaranteed.

‘Under that scenario, the penguins will effectively be marching towards extinction over the next century,’ she said.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Global Change Biology.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE LIFE CYCLE OF EMPEROR PENGUINS?

The Emperor penguin is the largest species of penguin, reaching heights of around four feet (1.2 meters) tall, and weighing between 49 pounds (22 kilograms) and 99 pounds (44 kilograms). 

They are recognisable due to their distinctive black back and head, white breast and yellow patches on their necks.

The flightless birds inhabit the Antarctic, huddling together to keep warm in the icy climate, where temperatures reach as low as -90C.

Emperor penguins breed and raise their young almost exclusively on sea ice, with the females laying eggs before heading off to hunt for food, leaving the males to incubate the egg.

If there's too little sea ice, it reduces the availability of breeding sites and prey for emperor penguins, but too much ice means longer hunting trips for adults, which means they can't feed their chicks as frequently

If there’s too little sea ice, it reduces the availability of breeding sites and prey for emperor penguins, but too much ice means longer hunting trips for adults, which means they can’t feed their chicks as frequently

After the chick is born, parents take turns foraging at sea and caring for the newborn within the colony.

The birds’ diet consists primarily of fish, but they will also eat crustaceans, such as krill, and cephalopods, such as squid. To facilitate hunting the penguins can remain underwater for up to 18 minutes, diving to a depth of 1,755 ft. 

The relationship between Emperor penguins and sea ice is fragile.

If there’s too little sea ice, it reduces the availability of breeding sites and prey, but too much ice means longer hunting trips for adults, which means they can’t feed their chicks as frequently.  


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