The Emperor Penguins Of Antarctica Are In Danger From Climate Change: Study

Stephanie Jenouvrier, a biologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, with a juvenille Emperor penguin. Image: courtesy of Stephanie Jenouvrier

An international team of scientists has found Emperor penguin populations across Antarctica are in danger of dramatic declines by the end of the century due to climate change.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, finds the Emperor penguin “fully deserving of endangered status due to climate change”.

The Emperor penguin, which grows to 120 cm in height and can weigh as much as 40 kilograms, is under consideration for inclusion under the US Endangered Species Act.

The study was conducted by Stephanie Jenouvrier, a biologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and colleagues at the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé (French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the University of Amsterdam.

Emperor penguins are dependent on sea ice for their livelihoods.

The researchers’ analysis determined that all of the colonies would be in decline, many by more than 50%, by the end of the century due to future climate change.

“None of the colonies, even the southern-most locations in the Ross Sea, will provide a viable refuge by the end of 21st century,” said Jenouvrier.

The foundation for the research is a 50-year intensive study of the Emperor penguin colony in Terre Adélie, in eastern Antarctica, supported by the French Polar Institute (IPEV) and Zone Atelier Antarctique (LTER France).

Researchers have been returning to Terre Adélie every year to collect biological measurements of the penguins there, charting the population’s growth (and decline), and observing their mating, foraging, chick-rearing patterns and following marked individuals from year to year.

“The role of sea ice is complicated,” said Jenouvrier.

“Too much ice requires longer trips for penguin parents to travel to the ocean to hunt and bring back food for their chicks. But too little ice reduces the habitat for krill, a critical food source for emperor penguins. Our models take into account both the effects of too much and too little sea ice in the colony area.”

The researchers found that, while some colonies will increase for a while, this growth is short-lived. By the end of the century at least two-thirds of them will have declined by more than half.

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