Global warming spells bad news for emperor penguins, study finds

Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have found that melting sea ice could lead to dramatic declines in populations of emperor penguins. 

Courtesy of Stephanie Jenouvrier, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
WHOI biologist Stephanie Jenouvrier readies an Emperor penguin chick (about 5 months old) for tagging during fieldwork in December 2011 in Terre Adélie.

Emperor penguins depend on the sea ice that rings the continent of Antarctic, so it's no surprise that global warming, which is expected to melt some of that ice, may be bad news for these flightless, 4-foot (1.2-meter) tall birds.

Since detailed information on most colonies is not available, the research focused on one well-studied colony of emperor penguins, at Terre Adélie in East Antarctica, to get an idea of what might happen to emperor penguins over the course of this century.

Their results aren't reassuring; they project this colony is likely to decline from 3,000 breeding pairs to 575 by 2100, a potentially "huge decline," said lead researcher Stéphanie Jenouvrier, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Sea ice is important for penguins and for other things living around Antarctica. For instance, krill, the tiny shrimplike animals that penguins and other animals eat, feed on algae that grow on the underside of sea ice. What's more the penguins raise their young on the ice during the harsh Antarctic winter. However, this makes getting close enough to the birds to study difficult for scientists.

In work published in 2009, researchers with the British Antarctic Survey used satellite images to identify 38 locations with colonies around the continent by looking for the stains the emperor penguins' droppings left on the white ice.

While sea ice in the Arctic has receded to new lows in recent years, the dynamics are different at the southern end of the planet. The West Antarctic Peninsula, which juts north, has warmed rapidly. And one emperor penguin colony, historically located on Emperor Island in the peninsula's Dion Islands, appears to have disappeared entirely.

However, shrinking sea ice is not the case for all of Antarctica's waters, but, ultimately, global warming is expected to shrink Antarctic sea ice significantly.

The current research focused on a colony of penguins at Terre Adélie. It is located near a research station making it possible for scientists to make detailed observations of the birds every winter since in 1962.

Based on observations at this colony, Jenouvrier and colleagues developed a mathematical model describing the population dynamics of emperor penguins, factored in the effects of sea ice and looked at how climate change may affect the penguins' numbers using a series of climate models.

They produced a wide range of results. At one end, the projections showed the complete loss of the penguins before the end of this century; the most optimistic projection predicted an increase in population until just before 2080 and a sharp decrease the last decade or so of the century.

The median, or middle, projection, however, estimated a decline to 575 breeding pairs by 2100.

"Overall, the ensemble of models predicts that population declines are far more likely than population increases. We conclude that climate change is a significant risk for the emperor penguin," the researchers write of their results detailed today (June 20) in the journal Global Change Biology.

Follow Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry orLiveScience @livescience . We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Global warming spells bad news for emperor penguins, study finds
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today