Climate change

Losing iconic emperor penguins to climate change

Species extinction risk is accelerating due to anthropogenic climate change, raising the urgency to protect vulnerable species. The emperor penguin is one of the species that we are losing. Scientists sound the alarm, predicting a grim future for the penguins. Thus experts from the Argentine Antarctic Institute calculate that these iconic species can go extinct in the next 30 to 40 years as a result of climate change.

Melting habitats

The emperor, the world’s largest penguin and one of two penguin species endemic to Antarctica, reside in Antarctica’s frozen tundra and chilly seas. Unfortunately for the emperors, climate models project significant declines in Antarctic sea ice to which the penguins’ life cycle is closely tied.

Emperor penguins give birth in the Antarctic winter and require solid sea ice for nesting newborn chicks from April to December. In the growth phase, the adult penguins keep newborn chicks between their legs to keep them warm while strolling on the thick ice sheet. If the sea freezes later or melts prematurely, however, the emperor family will not be able to complete its reproductive cycle. Moreover, the melting water presents a threat to newborns, which are not ready to swim and do not have waterproof plumage.

Penguins spend much of their time foraging within the pack ice, both during the breeding season and post-breeding. During the non-breeding season, remnants of ice serve as a platform where adult emperor penguins rest, hide from predators and molt. Thus variations in sea ice concentration affect the survival and reproduction of emperor penguins both directly and indirectly through the food web, influencing the presence and abundance of some emperor penguin prey species. 

The need for legal recognition and enhanced precautionary management for emperor penguins is now urgent, particularly given the continued increases in GHG emissions.

Thus the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the world’s strongest environmental law focused on preventing extinction and facilitating the recovery of imperiled species. Moreover, it was increasingly applied for the protection of species threatened primarily or in part by climate change. Listing under the ESA implies the use of science-based, enforceable tools to reduce climate threats and increase resilience, including habitat protection and recovery planning, as well as a prohibition on killing or harming listed species. For climate-threatened species occurring outside of US jurisdiction, not all of these protections apply, but there are still benefits such as promotion of research and conservation actions. ESA listing would require all US Federal agencies to evaluate and ensure that their activities do not jeopardize the species or their habitat, which could include limiting GHG emissions for species endangered by climate change. 

Controlling emissions to save penguins

The results of research from 2021 show that the longer current greenhouse gas emissions levels continue, the more certain sea ice loss and climate-driven signals in population dynamics become. By 2050, the emperor penguin will be in danger of extinction throughout a significant portion of its range regardless of the emission scenario. By 2100 projections diverge, depending upon the emission scenario. Under current emissions scenarios, the emperor penguin will be in danger of extinction throughout its entire range. 

That’s why the most important action to save penguins is to rapidly reduce GHG emissions and limit further warming. The emperor penguin in the Antarctic now serves as a “canary in the coal mine”, which is a sentinel species sensitive to the effects of climate change and signaling of the impacts that may be expected for other species. They show how well global society is acting to control GHG emissions. The future of emperor penguins and other life on Earth depends upon the decisions made today.

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