The melting of the Antarctic sea ice due to global warming is driving the world’s largest penguin species out of existence, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FSW).
The federal agency, that manages national wildlife, fish and natural habitats, has now listed the Emperor Penguin as an endangered species and granted it protection status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
‘This listing reflects the growing extinction crisis and highlights the importance of the ESA and efforts to conserve species before population declines become irreversible,’ said Martha Williams, director of the government organisation.
‘Climate change is having a profound impact on species around the world and addressing it is a priority for the administration. The listing of the emperor penguin serves as an alarm bell but also a call to action.’
Emperor penguins – made famous by the 2005 film March of the Penguins – can be up to 4ft tall and may weigh up to 88 pounds. They are famous for their parenting methods, with males and females taking turns to shelter their eggs in the brutally cold conditions of their habit – where air temperatures can reach −40 °C and wind speeds may reach 144 km/h – while the other forages for food.
They may be the only birds to never set foot on land, as the flightless creatures are entirely dependent on sea ice. They need holes in the ice to enter the water, where they hunt for fish, squid, and krill. They also need thick, stable ice as a platform for raising chicks, to shelter during their annual moult – the process of losing and growing feathers – and to escape from predators.
But the loss of sea ice, due to global warming, is a major threat to their existence – while ocean acidification is diminishing the supply of krill.
Emperor Penguin Numbers to Plummet
While emperor penguin populations are currently stable, the FSW has determined that the species is in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future. Currently there are approximately 61 breeding colonies along the coastline of Antarctica, and the species’ population size is estimated to be between 270,000 – 280,000 breeding pairs or 625,000 – 650,000 individual birds.
However the US wildlife researchers estimate that, according to the best available science, by 2050 their global population size will likely decrease by 26 per cent (to approximately 185,000 breeding pairs) to 47 per cent (to around 132,500 breeding pairs) under low and high carbon emissions scenarios, respectively.
And they predict a 99 per cent decline in the total emperor penguin population by the end of this century, if climate levels continue to rise.
In 2016 the second largest known emperor colony was devastated, when more than 10,000 chicks died in Halley Bay when sea ice broke up early. They were not yet ready to swim properly and drowned.
Also, the emperor penguin population at Point Géologie, which was featured in the film March of the Penguins, has declined by nearly 50 per cent since the 1970s.
The new legislation from the US Fish and Wildlife Service is aimed at setting forth international conservation measures for the species, including reducing industrial fishing that depletes the penguins’ food source and focussing attention on sources of greenhouse gases that are causing the melting of polar ice.
‘This is a big win for these beloved, iconic penguins and all of us who want them to thrive,’ said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
‘At the same time, this decision is a warning that emperor penguins need urgent climate action if they’re going to survive. The penguin’s very existence depends on whether our government takes strong action now to cut climate-heating fossil fuels and prevent irreversible damage to life on Earth.’