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Emperor penguin colonies imperiled: Melting ice could kill most by 2100, study finds

With climate change threatening their sea-ice habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes listing the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

An Emperor penguin on Peka Peka Beach of the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand.
An Emperor penguin on Peka Peka Beach of the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand.
Mark Mitchell / New Zealand Herald via AP

With climate change threatening the sea ice habitat of Emperor penguins, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the species as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The decisions made by policymakers today and during the next few decades will determine the fate of the Emperor penguin,” said Martha Williams, principal deputy director of the federal agency.

Stephanie Jenouvrier, a penguin ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said of Emperor penguins need stable sea ice “to breed, to feed and to molt,”

But climate change threatens that, according to new research published in the journal Global Change Biology. It found that, by 2100, 98% of Emperor penguin colonies could be pushed to the brink of extinction if no changes are made to current rates of carbon emissions and climate change.

About 70% of colonies will be in danger even sooner, by 2050, according to the study, which looked at warming trends and the increasing likelihood of extreme weather fluctuations due to global warming.

It noted that extremely low levels of sea ice in 2016 led to a massive breeding failure of an Emperor penguin colony in Antarctica’s Halley Bay.

That year, seasonal sea ice broke up before penguin chicks had time to develop waterproof adult feathers, and about 10,000 baby birds drowned, Jenouvrier said. The colony didn’t recover.

Emperor penguins breed exclusively in Antarctica during winter. They endure temperatures of minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit and wind speeds approaching 90 miles an hour by huddling together in groups of several thousand birds. But they can’t survive without sufficient sea ice.

“These penguins are hard hit by the climate crisis, and the U.S. government is finally recognizing that threat,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

The U.S. government has listed other species outside the country as threatened, including the polar bear, which lives in Arctic regions and also is imperiled by climate change and sea-ice loss.

Emperor penguins — the world’s largest penguins — number about 270,000 to 280,000 breeding pairs, or 625,000 to 650,000 individuals.

Listing the bird provides protections including a ban on importing them for commercial purposes.