Climate change threatens Emperor penguins; species faces extinction in 30 years
The emperor penguin, which roams Antarctica's freezing tundra and icy seas, is in grave danger of extinction in the next 30 to 40 years due to climate change, according to an expert from the Argentine Antarctic Institute (IAA).
Reproductive cycle impacted
The emperor penguin, the world's largest and one of only two penguin species unique to Antarctica, gives birth during the Antarctic winter and needs solid sea ice to nest fledgling chicks from April to December.
If the sea freezes later or melts too quickly, the emperor family will be unable to complete its reproductive cycle.
The sad tale of Halley Bay colony
If the water reaches the newborn penguins, they die of the cold and drown since they are not ready to swim and do not have waterproof plumage, said scientist Marcela Libertelli, who has studied 15,000 penguins over two colonies in Antarctica at the IAA.
This occurred at the Halley Bay colony in the Weddell Sea, the world's second-largest emperor penguin colony, where all of the chicks died for three years.
A grim future
Every August, in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter, Libertelli and other scientists at Argentina's Marambio Base in Antarctica travel 65 km (40 miles) each day by motor bike in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius (-40°F) to reach the nearest emperor penguin colony.
Once there, they count, weigh, and measure the chicks, gather geographical coordinates, and take blood samples. They also conduct aerial analysis.
The scientists' findings point to a grim future for the species if climate change is not mitigated.
"[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," Libertelli told Reuters.
The emperor's unique features include the longest reproductive cycle among penguins. After a chick is born, one parent continues carrying it between its legs for warmth until it develops its final plumage.
"The disappearance of any species is a tragedy for the planet," said Libertelli. "Whether small or large, plant or animal - it doesn't matter. It's a loss for biodiversity."
Impact on Antarctica's biodiversity
The extinction of the emperor penguin might have a significant influence over Antarctica, a harsh habitat with fewer members and fewer links, according to Libertelli.
The World Meteorological Organization issued a warning in early April, warning of "increasingly extreme temperatures coupled with unusual rainfall and ice melting in Antarctica" - a "worrying trend," according to Libertelli, because the Antarctic ice sheets have been thinning since at least 1999.
Tourism, fishing also harming the penguin
The rise of tourism and fishing in Antarctica has also put the emperor's future at risk by affecting krill, one of the main sources of food for penguins and other species.
"Tourist boats often have various negative effects on Antarctica, as do the fisheries," said Libertelli.
"It is important that there is greater control and that we think about the future."