Climate Change Poised to Push Emperor Penguins to the Brink of Extinction

Study estimates 98 percent of colonies will be quasi-extinct by 2100 unless the world drastically reduces its greenhouse gas emissions

Emperor penguin
Emperor penguins are the world's largest penguin, standing almost four feet tall and weighing around 88 pounds. They live almost exclusively in Antarctica and need sea ice to survive. Christopher Michel via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Emperor penguins, which stand nearly four feet tall, need stable sea ice to survive, but climate change is steadily melting away their Antarctic home. Unless dramatic action is taken to slow the progression of climate change, new research predicts the species will be all but extinct by the year 2100, reports Christina Larson for the Associated Press (AP).

The study, published this week in the journal Global Change Biology, estimates that 98 percent of emperor penguin colonies will become quasi-extinct by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current pace. As Rachel Pannett of the Washington Post explains, quasi-extinct means some individuals may survive but in such low numbers that the population is doomed. In just under 30 years, in 2050, the study predicts around 70 percent of colonies will be quasi-extinct unless the world rapidly curbs greenhouse gas emissions.

In recognition of the world's largest penguins' precarious future, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced on Tuesday its proposal for listing the emperor penguin under the Endangered Species Act, reports Catrin Einhorn for the New York Times.

“Climate change, a priority challenge for this Administration, impacts a variety of species throughout the world,” says Martha Williams, Principal Deputy Director of USFWS, in a statement. “The decisions made by policymakers today and during the next few decades will determine the fate of the emperor penguin.”

Recent estimates using satellite imagery suggest there are between 531,000 and 557,000 emperor penguins in the world. These birds survive some of the most extreme conditions on Earth: colonies huddling together on the Antarctic sea ice are blasted by winds that can reach nearly 90 miles per hour and temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. But as the authors of the new paper write in an article published in the Conversation, these tough birds have very specific preferences when it comes to sea ice.

“If there’s too much sea ice, trips to bring food from the ocean become long and arduous, and their chicks may starve,” writes lead study author Stephanie Jenouvrier, an ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “With too little sea ice, the chicks are at risk of drowning.”

In 2016, a particularly low sea ice year drowned roughly 10,000 baby emperor penguins from a colony in Antarctica’s Halley Bay, according to the AP.

Per the Post, parts of the Antarctic Peninsula have seen their sea ice coverage decline by more than 60 percent in three decades, which has virtually erased one emperor penguin colony.

A 2019 study, also led by Jenouvrier, estimates that if the world met the Paris Climate Agreement’s target of limiting warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial temperatures that only around 20 percent of emperor penguin colonies would become quasi-extinct.

However, as Jenouvrier writes in the Conversation, the world is not on pace to meet that target. She cites an estimate from Climate Action Tracker, that suggests our planet has a greater than 97% probability of exceeding the Paris Agreement’s secondary target of 2 C (3.6 F) with its current slate of climate policies.

Since climate change is the emperor penguin’s main threat, the potential Endangered Species Act listing could have significant ramifications.

“The hope is that, with these added protections, approvals of U.S. fossil fuel projects will have to weigh harms to penguins and their Antarctic habitat, ultimately reducing heat-trapping pollution worldwide,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, tells the Times.