The icy conditions of the coastlines of Antarctica are far too extreme for humans to survive. But that is the home of the emperor penguins. However, similar to the fairytale of Goldilocks, their comfort zone is very narrow. If there is sea ice, then trips to the ocean to bring back food becomes too arduous, meaning chicks might starve. If the sea ice is too little, chicks might drown. This delicate balance is being threatened by climate change, potentially pushing Emperor Penguins as a species towards extinction.
Unlike their stereotypical appearance of having a comic gait, emperor penguins are serene and peaceful when they walk across the ice. They are very curious creatures, and often interact with researchers.
Emperor Penguins Are Long Documented
Emperor Penguins have been studied by researchers since as early as the 1960s. The penguins mate on top of fast ice. This is the word for sea ice that is attached to the land. However, their hunting takes place on pack ice. Pack ice is floes of sea ice that are moved by ocean and wind currents and can merge. They also rest on the sea ice when the annual molt takes place. It also offers them refuge from predators.
At Antarctica’s Pointe Geologie, the population of emperor penguins had decreased by half during the later year of the 1970s. The reason was a reduction of sea ice resulting in more male penguins dying. The population is yet to recover completely from enormous failures when it comes to breeding, which is getting more frequent.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service supported a team with international members to figure out if emperor penguins qualify for the Act for Endangered Species. Currently, they are categorized as “near endangered.”
By the end of the century, however, all colonies will be declining. Currently, the penguins have adapted to the environment. But no evolution has taken place to let them survive climate change’s rapid effects. Currently, its entire world is on the verge of being reshaped.
Major shifts in the environment, like sea ice forming and melting later where their colonies are situated, are adding to the risk.
One of the more dramatic examples is the Halley Bay collapse that happened recently. In Antarctica, it was the second-biggest colony of emperor penguins. In 2016, over 10,000 chicks lost their lives because sea ice melted and broke up too early. The colony is yet to recover from the collapse.
Taking account of such extreme events, a recent study has estimated that 98% of emperor penguin colonies will not survive till the end of the century if the current rate of emissions continues. Moreover, 99% of the global population will be gone compared to its size in the past.
The Paris Agreement Goal May Be The Hope
However, the latest study also said there is still time to save them. If the targets agreed at the climate meeting in Paris are met, then it might be enough. This means keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2.7F, compared to temperatures before 1900.
But are we close to meeting the goal? The answer is we could hardly be any further, as the latest climate change report by the UN reveals. Another Climate Action Tracker estimates that the current political pathways of countries have over 97% chance of going past 2 degrees C or 3.6F. After factoring in recent announcements by governments, the estimated increase is almost 2.4 degrees C or 4.3F.
In conclusion, emperor penguins have become the coal miner’s canary, similar to the proverb. Their future, and the majority of other life on this planet, including us, depends on the decisions we make today.