Antarctic sea ice loss poses an existential menace to emperor penguins

Stephanie Jenouvrier – WHOI

Unchecked climate change could drive emperor penguins to extinction by the tip of the century as sea ice vanishes. However if the world delivers on the hardest goal of the Paris climate settlement, of limiting world temperature rises to 1.5C, then numbers of the enduring species will decline by lower than a 3rd.

Stephanie Jenouvrier on the Woods Gap Oceanographic Establishment in Massachusetts discovered that the way forward for emperor penguins hinges on worldwide climate efforts relatively than their skill to adapt and transfer to new houses.

Penguins are this indicator species, this canary within the coal mine, they’re warning us of the long run impact of climate. The large message is we must take heed to the penguins, and implement insurance policies to satisfy the Paris agreements goal, and we want to try this now, she says.


Disappearing sea ice impacts emperor penguins instantly as a result of they rely on it for his or her nine-month breeding season, in addition to a spot to moult and escape from predators. However the ice can also be essential for the species as a result of it influences the meals they rely on, together with krill.

Sea ice modifications are already affecting emperor penguins, with breeding failures for three years in a row at their second biggest colony in the Antarcticpinned on early break-up of ice used for breeding.

Bleak outlook

To look at the destiny of the world’s estimated 595,000 emperors because the planet warms, Jenouvrier and her colleagues modelled future colonies and populations beneath three completely different eventualities: hitting the Paris offers prime goal of 1.5C, its minimal aim of not more than 2C, and what would occur if emissions preserve rising as they’re right this moment.

They mixed a world climate mannequin, sea ice projections and completely different eventualities of how the penguins would possibly disperse, one thing most research don’t have a look at. The outcome was an 81 to 86 per cent fall in inhabitants by 2100 beneath the business-as-usual state of affairs, relying on how the animals disperse to new houses.

For me, the inhabitants goes to be extinct, says Jenouvrier of such an end result. Such a giant decline would go away so few people that in ecological phrases it might be thought of an extinction, she says.

In contrast, warming of 1.5C would see a 31 per cent decline, and 2C a 44 per cent lower.

The anticipated penguin losses are worse than when Jenouvrier estimated them five years ago, partly due to higher climate fashions since then.

Peter Fretwell on the British Antarctic Survey, who wasn’t concerned within the examine, says there’s nonetheless lots of uncertainty as to how emperors will react because the world warms, however their future seems to be bleak if emissions aren’t reduce quickly. The distinction between a state of affairs the place we do halt world warming and one the place we dont is stark.

Journal reference: International Change Biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.14864

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