The Heat Is Online

Warming Puts Emperor Penguins at Risk of Extinction

Emperor Penguins Marching Toward Extinction, Jan. 28, 2009


The emperor penguins, the species popularized in modern culture by the 2005 movie "March of the Penguins," are at serious risk of extinction in parts of their range because of climate change, according to a new study published this week.


Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), predicting the effect climate change and resulting losses of sea ice will have on the penguins, found that disappearing habitat will have a profound impact on the species.


If climate change continues to melt sea ice at the rate highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the large emperor penguin colony in Terre Adelie, Antarctica is set to shrink from its current 3,000 breeding pairs to only 400 pairs in 2100.


The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the probability of a "drastic decline" by 95 percent or more is at least 40 percent, and could be as much as 80 percent.

"Such a decline would put the population at serious risk of extinction," said researchers.


Sea ice plays an integral role in the Antarctic ecosystem, noted the study's authors.


It is not only a platform for the penguins to breed and feed, but is also a grazing ground for krill, the tiny crustaceans that are a key food source for the entire Antarctic food chain -- including penguins, fish, seals and whales.


According to a report released late last year by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), half to three-quarters of major Antarctic penguin colonies could be damaged or wiped out if global temperatures are allowed to climb by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.


A two-degree hike would threaten 50 percent of breeding grounds of emperor penguins, and 75 percent of Adelie penguin colonies, said the study, released at the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona.


The United Nation's panel of climate change scientists has warned that Earth's average temperature could increase more than two degrees Celsius by century's end even if major efforts are made to curb greenhouse gases, and twice as fast under "business-as-usual" scenarios.