Editorial Feature

Climate Change to Drive Emperor Penguins to Extinction By 2100


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Research has revealed that the effects of climate change could drive the emperor penguin to extinction by 2100 if we fail to reverse the detrimental transitions already set into motion. A recent study published in Global Change Biology has uncovered that if the trajectory of climate change continues on the path that it is set on, the emperor penguin will be driven to extinction in just 90 years due to sea ice vanishing.

If the Paris Agreement initiative is met, that is to limit temperature increase in this century to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, with a best-case scenario aim of 1.5 °C, then this could be reduced to an extinction of 31% of the current population.

Climate Change Significantly Impacts Wildlife

Climate change is currently a hot topic: global strikes and marches are happening internationally to raise awareness not only of the detrimental impact of rising global temperatures but also to draw attention to the urgency of the issue.

Human impact on the earth is threatening to prevent our own future. Scientists around the world have been releasing a mounting body of evidence over the last few decades to prove that climate change, as a result of human activity, is having a profound impact on almost all areas of life, bringing about changes that in some cases are feared to be irreversible.

The planets biological, geological and ecological systems are being altered and the earth is suffering from extreme weather, damage to the ozone layer, a loss of biodiversity, the spread of infectious diseases, and even the threat of losing some of its animal species forever.

A paper published last September in the esteemed journal, Nature, uncovers that the worlds penguin population has been suffering as a result of the weather shifts that are attributed to climate change. It concludes that 750 years ago, and more recently, around 200 years ago, the Adélie penguins endured a die-off period where a large portion of their population died because they were not adapted to the sudden change in weather systems.

This year, another team looked into the impact of climate change on the emperor penguin population, to estimate how the bird species is faring against the imposing effects of climate change.

Intelligent Simulations Predict Future Behaviors and Impact on Colonies

An international team of researchers recognized that, until recently, there had been huge limitations imposed on studies that wanted to predict the dynamics of climate change.

They noted that the minimal studies that had assessed the potential ecological impact of the Paris Agreement (to keep the temperature increase to a maximum of 2 °C over the century) had been using ad‐hoc approaches. They had wanted to take advantage of recent developments in specific mitigation climate simulations that allowed the team to make accurate ecological impact assessments.

The study uses a climate‐dependent metapopulation model to explore how the dynamics of emperor penguin colonies would be affected by different climate change scenarios. The model allowed for behavioral changes initiated by the penguins to allow them to escape regions worse affected by climate change and seek different habitat selections, making the modeling incredibly realistic and capable of accounting for likely real-life reactions of the animals.

A Poor Outlook

The study predicts that, if greenhouse emissions remain as they are, 80% of emperor penguin colonies will be quasi-extinct by 2100. When models were ran simulating how the abundance of penguins would be impacted if the Paris Agreement objectives are met, the data showed that the emperor penguin population would endure. A rise in global temperatures of 2 °C would see 31% of colonies reaching quasi-extinction by 2100, and a 1.5 °C increase would see only 19% meeting this fate.

While these figures are an improvement of the almost total wipeout that the model predicts if we take no significant action on climate change, there is still cause for concern. The data concludes that in a situation of a 2 °C rise in temperature there would be a 44% decrease in the emperor penguin population, and a rise of 1.5 °C would result in a 31% fall in numbers.

The findings of the study are not just critical for acting as a warning to prevent the decline of the penguins, it is also meaningful to the conservation of all of the planets wildlife. Thousands of species exist on the earth that have evolved to survive in a specific, delicately balanced eco-system. Slight rises in temperature can impact the entire eco-system in profound ways because so many animal and plant species depend on each other. The study acts as another alert that emissions must be tackled with urgency.

References and Further Reading

Gao, Y., Yang, L., Xie, Z., Emmerson, L., Southwell, C., Wang, Y. and Sun, L. (2018) Last Millennium Adélie Penguin Mortality and Colony Abandonment Events on Long Peninsula, East AntarcticaJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 123(9), pp.2878-2889. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1029/2018JG004550

Jenouvrier, S., Holland, M., Iles, D., Labrousse, S., Landrum, L., Garnier, J., Caswell, H., Weimerskirch, H., LaRue, M., Ji, R. and Barbraud, C. (2019) The Paris Agreement objectives will likely halt future declines of emperor penguins. Global Change Biology https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.14864

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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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