Environment

Something Is Really Wrong With the Climate If These Penguins Are Under Threat of Being Wiped Out (and They Are)

The climate crisis is taking a devastating toll on one of nature’s most resilient species in Antarctica.

Antarctica is the harshest environment on Earth, and the coldest, driest, windiest and highest of all the planet's continents. Ninety-eight percent of it is covered in a thick ice sheet, while the remaining 2 percent is barren rock. Technically, it’s a desert, with an annual precipitation of just 8 inches, most of that tiny amount near the coastline. December is the warmest month, when it gets to around 28°F.

"Antarctica is the last wilderness on the planet," said Martin Siegert, a geoscientist and Antarctic explorer at the University of Bristol in England, who has led expeditions to the southern land mass. "There are no native humans living on Antarctica, and there's a good reason for that." However, a few terrestrial vertebrates call this inhospitable place home, and one species has thrived there for almost 45,000 years: Adélie penguins.

But human-caused climate change may end their remarkable run.

Adélie penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica (photo: Jason Auch/Flickr CC)

According to a NASA-funded study conducted by researchers at the University of Delaware and published in the journal Scientific Reports, 60 percent of the Adélie penguin population could be killed off by 2099 due to habitat loss caused by warmer water temperatures and subsequent loss of sea ice. Over the past quarter-century, their population has plummeted by 65 percent. About 30 percent of current Adélie colonies may be in decline by 2060, the researchers project, with 60 percent of the present population gone by 2099.

“It is only in recent decades that we know Adélie penguin population declines are associated with warming, which suggests that many regions of Antarctica have warmed too much and that further warming is no longer positive for the species,” said the study’s lead author, marine biologist Megan Cimino, a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.

To gauge the impact of the continent’s warming trends on the penguins, the researchers looked at temperature predictions over this century made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations agency responsible for assessing the risks of human-induced climate change. They also analyzed satellite observations taken between 1981 and 2010 of sea surface temperature, sea ice and also barren, ice-free rock locations, which is where the penguins make their nests. Satellite photos also provided Cimino’s team with overall estimates of the Adélie penguin population.

Male Adélie penguins help their mates rear their young. Without close inspection, the two sexes are difficult to tell apart. They are distinguished from other penguin species by a white-colored ring around their eyes. (image: University of Delaware/Megan Cimino)

“From other studies that used actual ground counts—people going and physically counting penguins—and from high-resolution satellite imagery, we have global estimates of Adélie penguin breeding locations, meaning where they are present and where they are absent, throughout the entire Southern Ocean,” said Cimino. “We also have estimates of population size and how their populations have changed over last few decades. We used all these data to run habitat suitability models.”

“When we combined this data with satellite information and future climate projections of sea surface temperature and sea ice, we can look at past and future changes in Adélie penguin habitat suitability,” she said. "Satellite data allowed me to look at all Adélie penguin habitats throughout the entire Southern Ocean and over multiple decades, which otherwise would not be possible using data solely collected on land or by ship."

They found that steadily rising temperatures have changed the climate of the penguins' favored habitat along the West Antarctic Peninsula from polar to subpolar conditions, significantly reducing the extent of the sea ice where the penguins live. Although Adélie penguins are efficient swimmers who can travel 185 miles round-trip to find a meal, global warming has also altered the food web, making it harder for the birds to find their natural diet of krill, silverfish and glacial squid.

Specifically, the loss of ice harms the penguins’ ability to reproduce. "Rain and puddles are bad because [penguin] eggs [laid on the ground] can't survive when they're lying in a pool of water," said Cimino.

This graphic shows changes to the suitability of Adélie penguin breeding areas. Click to enlarge. (image: NASA's Earth Observatory)

Though the outlook is grim, there is hope. Cimino and her colleagues discovered so-called "climate refugias," locations animals can retreat to and possibly survive in the long term under changing climate conditions. The Ross Sea and Amundsen Sea, two bodies of water in the Southern Ocean, could provide safe havens for Adélie penguin colonies. But whether they will migrate and survive there remains to be seen.

“The Cape Adare region of the Ross Sea is home to the earliest known penguin occupation and has the largest known Adélie penguin rookery in the world,” Cimino said. “Though the climate there is expected to warm a bit, it looks like it could be a refugia in the future, and if you look back over geologic time it was likely a refuge in the past.”

If you care about the welfare of Antarctica’s penguins, it may seem like the only thing you can do is to reduce your carbon footprint—which would actually help the environment in a lot of ways. But now, thanks to a collaboration between NASA and Stony Brook University, citizen scientists can assist ongoing research by using a new, first-of-its kind user-friendly website that tracks the continent’s penguin populations and gives non-scientists a chance to help researchers understand the various stressors affecting penguins, such as climate change, tourism and fishing. The interactive, open-access tool is called the Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics (MAPPPD) and is available at www.penguinmap.com.

MAPPPD allows citizen scientists to participate in ongoing scientific research into Antarctica's penguins. (image: MAPPPD screenshot)

“The launch of this website has the potential to greatly improve management and collaboration around the Antarctic,” said project leader Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. “MAPPPD contains data for approximately 1,300 historical and current surveys in over 700 sites around the Antarctic continent. These data come primarily from published literature, though population estimates based on satellite imagery are also used by researchers and represents a growing component of MAPPPD’s utility.”

Lynch noted that because tourists outnumber scientists in the region during the summer months, they are well-positioned to contribute vital information through photographs and bird checklists, which can be submitted to MAPPPD.

There’s also Penguin Watch, part of the Zooniverse collection of web-based citizen science projects that depend on volunteers to help researchers process massive amounts of data. Penguin Watch, which asks users to do basic things like identifying the number of adult penguins in a given photograph, is particularly easy to do and would be a great project for kids.

The citizen science project Penguin Watch asks volunteers to count the number of penguins in a given photograph. (image: Penguin Watch screenshot)

While the University of Delaware study is specific to Antarctica’s Adélie penguins, it may help spark interest in other wildlife dealing with the changing climate. “Studies like this are important because they focus our attention on areas where a species is most vulnerable to change,” said Cimino. “The results can have implications for other species that live in the area and for other ecosystem processes.”

But perhaps there is something special about penguins, at least in the eyes of humans. In his 1922 memoir, The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a survivor of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated final journey to the South Pole in 1910, praised the unwavering mettle of these tough birds. He wrote:

Whatever [an Adélie] penguin does has individuality, and he lays bare his whole life for all to see. He cannot fly away. And because he is quaint in all that he does, but still more because he is fighting against bigger odds than any other bird, and fighting always with the most gallant pluck.

For millennia, Adélie penguins have fought against bigger odds, from leopard seals who hunt them to the daily struggle of natural forces that prevent most other species from gaining a foothold in this harsh environment. But in human beings, they may have finally met their match.

Watch a video about the challenges Adélie penguins face in raising their young:

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