Penguins in peril from global warming

Posted: 11 December 2007

The penguin population of Antarctica is under pressure from global warming, says a new scientific report. The reduction in sea ice, and overfising, is threatening four populations that breed on the Antarctic continent - the Emperor, Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adélie penguins.

Emperor penguin adults and chick
Emperor penguin adults and chick
Emperor penguin adults and chick. Photo © WWF / Fritz Pölking
Climate warming is melting the sea ice and taking away precious nesting grounds on which some penguins raise their young, the WWF report says. Food has become increasingly scarce because of warming in conjunction with overfishing.

"As the ice melts, these icons of the Antarctic will have to face an extremely tough battle to survive", says Emily Lewis-Brown, Marine and Climate Change Officer at WWF-UK. "One of the coldest environments in the world is actually seeing some of the fastest rates of global warming, and unless action is taken to reduce global CO2 emissions, the future of many Antarctic species looks bleak."

The Antarctic Peninsula is warming five times faster than the average rate of global warming and the vast Southern Ocean has warmed all the way down to a depth of 3,000m. Sea ice - ice that forms from sea water - covers 40 per cent less area than it did 26 years ago off the WestAntarctic Peninsula. This has led to reduced numbers of krill, the main source of food for Chinstrap Penguins. The number of Chinstrapsdecreased by as much as 30 to 66 per cent in some colonies, as reduced food has made it more difficult for the young to survive. It is the same story for Gentoo Penguins, who are increasingly dependant on the declining krill stocks as overfishing kills off their usual food sources.

Eggs blown away

The Emperor Penguin, the largest and most majestic penguin in the world, has seen some of its colonies halved in size over the past halfcentury. Warmer winter temperatures and stronger winds have forced the penguins to raise their chicks on increasingly thinner sea ice. For manyyears sea ice has broken off early and many eggs and chicks have been blown away before they were ready to survive on their own.

In the northwestern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, where warming has been the most dramatic, populations of Adélie Penguins have dropped by 65 per cent over the past 25 years. Not only has food become scarcer with the disappearance of sea ice, but the Adélie's cousins, the Gentoos and Chinstraps have also invaded the region to take advantage of warmer temperatures. Scientists are concerned about the future of the Adélie Penguin, which needs land that is free of snow and ice to raise their young.

Emily Lewis-Brown adds: "The UN climate change summit underway in Bali must agree a process now which results in comprehensive, ambitious, and fair global emission reduction targets beyond the current phase of Kyoto which ends in 2012. It's vital that government's agree upon a clear, shared vision to keep global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels."

WWF says global action to protect Antarctica and that a successful outcome from the UN Bali Climate Change Summit are vital for ensuring the future of these penguins.

WWF-UK recently launched its Antarctic and Southern Oceans Initiative to try to save this remote region in the face of increasing threats to its fragile habitats. By identifying and designating a network of marine protected areas, WWF hopes to reduce the impact of other pressures in the region, such as fisheries and tourism, helping the ecosystem to adapt to rising temperatures.

The report, 'Antarctic Penguins and Climate Change', was produced in partnership with Dr David Ainley, expert scientist on Adélie penguinsand climate change. More information on the research can be found here