Dear EarthTalk: I hear Emperor penguins are on the brink of extinction… How did they get there and what can we do to save this species?
—J.W., Westport, CT
Two words explain the decline of Emperor penguins: climate change. Like many wildlife species across the globe, Emperor penguin populations have been declining for years due to the repercussions of a warming planet, such as melting sea ice and rising oceans. According to a 2021 population survey and assessment in Global Change Biology, “If Sea ice declines at the rate projected by climate models under current energy system trends and policies … almost all [Emperor penguin] colonies would become quasi-extinct by 2100.”
“Antarctica is not escaping climate change at all. It’s warming, it’s melting, it’s contributing to sea-level rise,” Tim Naish of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) tells Newshub.
Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and the non-profit Oceanites estimate that approximately 238,000 breeding pairs of Emperors, or 595,000 adult birds, live in Antarctica. Although these numbers have held relatively steady over the past several decades, new studies warn that the penguins’ future is tied directly to that of the sea ice on which they depend; as the ice melts, so too do the penguins’ chances of survival.
Emperor penguins are not the only Antarctic species with uncertain futures. As a sentinel species of the Southern Ocean—the proverbial canary in the coalmine—declines-in Emperor populations indicate larger ecosystem disruptions that affect other wildlife, as well. Krill, a small shrimplike animal that floods the Southern Ocean, serves as a major food source for baleen whales, seals and fish, as well as penguins. But krill populations have been declining in recent decades and may decline by as much as 30 percent by the year 2100.
One way to save Emperor penguins is to study how they adapt to their changing habitats. “In contrast to what people think, the Emperor penguin is a species very poorly studied,” Céline Le Bohec from the Hubert Curien Pluridisciplinary Institute in Strasbourg, France tells Popular Science. “…any data, especially from the sea, is exciting and precious.”
Scientific research recently got a boost in the form of a yellow data-gathering robot that roams among the Emperor colony. ECHO’s data will allow researchers to “define and map marine biological ‘hotspots’ and Marine Protected Areas,” Le Bohec said. Such information may prove invaluable to informing where and how to implement conservation efforts.
Additionally, any actions that reduce climate change will eventually help the Emperors and all Antarctic wildlife. Reducing our carbon footprint and plastic waste present two immediate opportunities. Eating less fish and cutting down on krill oil may also help. Many fish farms use krill scooped from Antarctica for fish food. Krill fishing not only reduces the penguins’ food source, but can also catch hungry whales, seals and penguins in the fishing nets. Finally, non-profit organizations that protect penguins and their habitats are always in search of additional funding—a small donation can’t hurt!
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