Global Warming Threatens to Wipe Out Emperor Penguins
They live in almost fifty colonies around Antarctica and it is estimated that there are almost 600,000 of these magnificent Penguins.
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Their fate is largely linked to the future of sea ice, which they use as a breeding grounds.
The emperor penguins, whose march through the Antarctic ice became famous in 2006 with the film Happy Feet, could be doomed to extinction by the end of this century if climate change continues at the current rate, according to a study published Thursday by the journal Global Change Biology.
The emperor penguin, which is the tallest and heaviest of all the penguin populations, and can reach to 130 centimetres.
They live in almost 50 colonies around Antarctica and it is estimated that there are almost 600,000 of these animals.
In 2012, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) transferred the emperor penguin from the species of least concern to near threatened.
"If the global climate continues to warm at the current rate, we expect emperor penguins in Antarctica to experience an 86 percent decline by 2100," said the study's lead author, Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
"At that point, it's very unlikely that they can recover," she said.
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Their survival depends largely on what happens to sea ice.
The survival of penguins depends largely on what happens to sea ice, which the animals use as sites for reproduction and plumage change.
These birds choose to establish their colonies with ice plots under very specific conditions: they must be attached to the Antarctic continental coast, but close enough to the open sea so that they can feed themselves.
As temperatures rise, the sea ice sheet is gradually decreasing and penguins are being deprived of their habitat, food sources and the ability to raise their young.
Jenouvrier and his team combined two computer models, one on global climate change created by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) with projections of where and when the sea line would form depending on the climate situation; and another on the penguin population calculated on how colonies can react to modifications in the icy habitat.
"We've worked ten years developing the model," the scientist said. "It can give us a very detailed picture of how sea ice affects the life cycle, reproduction and mortality of emperor penguins.
The researchers applied the model to three different scenarios: one of a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius (the goal set by the Paris Agreement); another with an increase of 2 degrees Celsius; and another in which no action has been taken to reduce climate change, which would cause global temperatures to rise by 5 to 6 degrees Celsius.
In the first scenario, experts found that only 5% of sea ice would be lost with a 19% reduction in the number of penguin colonies.
If the planet's atmosphere were to be two degrees warmer, the loss of sea ice would almost triple and more than a third of the colonies would disappear.
In the absence of measures to mitigate global warming, the projection is much gloomier with the complete disappearance of these colonies.
"Under that scenario, penguins will be marching effectively toward extinction during the next century," Jenouvrier added.