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On Friday, an expert from the Argentine Antarctic Institute (IAA) warned that changes could come within the next 30 to 40 years, with climate change as the driving force.
“[Climate] projections suggest that the colonies that are located between latitudes 60 and 70 degrees [south] will disappear in the next few decades; that is, in the next 30, 40 years,” IAA biologist Marcela Libertelli told Reuters.
She said that loss of solid sea ice in the Antarctic from April through December would disrupt the penguins’ reproductive cycle and noted that increased tourism and fishing has impacted food sources for penguins and other species.
The emperor penguin’s disappearance could also have a dramatic effect on the ecosystem there.
In a statement, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) said last month that urgent action needed to be taken, with the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) projecting that around 80% of emperor penguin colonies will be quasi-extinct by the year 2100 under current levels of carbon dioxide emissions.
Emperor penguins in Dumont d’Urville, Antarctica, April 10, 2012. (REUTERS/Martin Passingham/File Photo)
The researchers also predicted that the total number of emperor penguins could decline by at least 81% under that scenario and that — under extreme circumstances — up to 100% of colonies could become quasi-extinct by 2100, with the number of emperor penguins projected to decline by at least 99%.
The WWF called for the penguins to be listed as a specially protected species, raising similar concerns as Libertelli over the destruction of habitat.
“Emperor penguins require stable, ‘fast’ ice (sea ice which is connected to the land) for about nine months of the year as a platform to mate, incubate their eggs, raise their chicks and replace their feathers during the annual moult,” the non-governmental organization explained. “Changes to, or loss of, fast ice, or early ice breakout can cause massive breeding failure for several consecutive years. Collapsed ice shelves can block paths to feeding areas, leading to the death of both chicks and adults.”
Emperor penguins stand in their enclosure at the Hellabrunn Zoo in Bavaria April 8, 2019. (Marie Reichenbach/picture alliance via Getty Images)
With temperatures in parts of eastern Antarctica rising to concerning record levels this year, the WWF highlighted that even the best-case scenario means the penguins’ population is likely to decrease by 31% by the end of the century.
“Emperor penguins are the most iconic species of the ice. They are uniquely adapted to the harsh and extreme Antarctic environment,” Rod Downie, WWF’s chief adviser of the polar regions, said in a statement. “Yet they are also increasingly vulnerable to climate change, habitat loss and human disturbance.
“Only humans can secure the future of this species, as their fate depends on global climate policy combined with an action plan to protect their habitat and remove other risks from human disturbance. We need emperor penguins to be listed as specially protected species at this year’s Antarctic Treaty meeting in order to better shield them against the threat of climate change and to ensure their continued survival.”
There are approximately 595,000 adult emperor penguins in Antarctica.
In April, the World Meteorological Organization wrote that record-high temperatures, rain and the collapse of an ice shelf were prompting widespread concern, though it was too soon to say definitively whether climate change was the cause.
The Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass since at least 1990, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says they are expected to continue to do so.
As a result of melting ice, the rate of global sea level rise has increased, reaching a new record high in 2021.
The Antarctic ice sheet contains 90% of the world’s fresh water, enough to raise sea level by around 60 meters.
Last week, scientists announced they had made the first detection of groundwater beneath an Antarctic ice stream.
Reuters contributed to this report.