Climate Change

Emperor Penguins would be extinct if climate goals are not met

Quite like a canary in a coal mine, used by the British in the mid-1980s to check for carbon monoxide in a mine; the Emperor Penguin is providing a similar warning about the planetary effects of burning fossil fuels

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 08 November 2019

Warming climate may render Emperor Penguins, one of the most striking and charismatic animals on Earth, extinct by the end of the century, according to a new study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

The study was a part of an international collaboration between scientists. Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at the WHOI and lead author of the paper published on November 7, 2019 in the journal Global Change Biology found, that the future of Emperor Penguins hinges on international climate efforts rather than their ability to adapt and move to new homes.

“Penguins are this indicator species, this canary in the coal mine, they are warning us of the future effect of climate. The big message is we need to listen to the penguins, and implement policies to meet the Paris agreement’s objective, and we need to do that now,” she says.

Disappearing sea ice impacts Emperor Penguins directly, as the animals use it as a home base for their nine-month breeding season and for feeding and moulting.

Emperor Penguins tend to build their colonies on ice with extremely specific conditions — it must be locked in to the shoreline of the Antarctic continent, but close enough to open seawater to give the birds access to food for themselves and their young. As climate warms, however, that sea ice will gradually disappear, robbing the birds of their habitat, food sources and ability to raise their chicks.

To examine the fate of the world’s estimated 595,000 Emperor Penguins as the planet warms, Jenouvrier and her colleagues modelled future colonies and populations under three different scenarios: Hitting the Paris deal’s top target of 1.5°C, its minimum goal of no more than 2°C, and what would happen if emissions keep rising as they are today.

“When we used a climate model linked to our population model to project what is likely to happen to sea ice if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their present trend, we found that all 54 known Emperor Penguin colonies would be in decline by 2100, and 80% of them would be quasi-extinct. Accordingly, we estimate that the total number of Emperor Penguins will decline by 86% relative to its current size of roughly 250,000 if nations fail to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions,” Jenouvrier wrote in her article.

The minor silver lining according to the scientist is that if the global community acts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and succeeds in stabilising average global temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Emperor Penguin numbers would decline by 31 per cent—still drastic, but viable.

“Our findings starkly illustrate the far-reaching implications of national climate policy decisions. Curbing carbon dioxide emissions has critical implications for Emperor Penguins and an untold number of other species for which science has yet to document such a plain-spoken warning,” Jenouvrier says.

The predicted penguin losses are worse than when Jenouvrier estimated them five years ago, partly because of better climate models since then.

According to the New Scientist, Peter Fretwell at the British Antarctic Survey, who wasn’t involved in the study, says there is still a lot of uncertainty as to how emperors will react as the world warms, but their future looks bleak if emissions aren’t cut rapidly. “The difference between a scenario where we do halt global warming and one where we don’t is stark.” 

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