Emperor Penguin Populations Could Decline by 98% by 2100

Image: lin padgham via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Rapidly melting sea ice in the Arctic has notoriously decimated the habitats of the world’s beloved polar bears. Now, another polar species is staring down the barrel of extinction on the opposite side of the globe. On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing Emperor penguins as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Populations of the flightless birds, who make their home on the sea ice of Antarctica, are now expected to decline by up to 98% in the next century unless the world successfully limits temperature rise.

Why This Matters: Biodiversity is declining worldwide, wreaking havoc on ecosystems. The Earth’s poles are warming at two to three times the rate of the rest of the world, leaving ice-reliant species adrift and forcing many to migrate toward the equator for survival.

The consequences don’t just impact well-known species like polar bears and penguins, but also keystone species like krill, which support entire food chains. Experts say that protecting the Antarctic is essential to safeguarding indispensable scientific research on climate change that could save our oceans.

Protecting the Penguin: A study published Tuesday in the journal Global Change Biology reported that 98% of Emperor penguin colonies could be nearly extinct by 2100. Around 70% of colonies may face extinction by 2050. There are currently about 625,000 to 650,000 emperor penguins, and experts say that warming waters and low sea ice levels can result in the massive failure of breeding seasons.

There is a sea ice ‘Goldilocks’ zone,” said Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a lead author of the study. “If there is too little sea ice, chicks can drown when sea ice breaks up early; if there is too much sea ice, foraging trips become too long and more arduous, and the chicks may starve.”

Listing the species as threatened would provide new protections, including a ban on importing the birds for commercial purposes, and U.S. fisheries operating in Antarctica will be required to evaluate the potential impact on the species.Climate change, a priority challenge for this Administration, impacts a variety of species throughout the world,” said Martha Williams, the principal deputy director of the wildlife service. “The decisions made by policymakers today and during the next few decades will determine the fate of the Emperor penguin.”

Jenouvrier says that penguins have become “modern-day canaries” for climate change and should serve as a warning to humans that the impact of fossil fuel use and pollution can travel far beyond the borders of human society. “Although they are found in Antarctica, far from human civilization, they live in a delicate balance with their environment, which today is rapidly changing.”

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