Extreme climatic events increasingly threaten emperors | Polarjournal
Dark clouds hang over the northernmost emperor penguin colony, Snow Hill, promising snowfall. No problem for the perfectly adapted birds. However, 22 of the 54 colonies have already experienced other extreme climate-induced events that the colony has been permanently altered. Picture: Michael Wenger

Extreme weather events are currently being reported from many places around the world. Droughts and dry spells, floods and torrential rains, tornadoes now make most of the headlines and threaten people and nature. Now an international study has shown that the icons of Antarctica, emperor penguins, are also more threatened by climate change-induced extreme events than previously thought. That is why they are calling for more efforts and a reassessment of the penguins’ conservation status.

According to calculations using models, the world’s largest penguins could be virtually extinct by 2100, the team concludes in their work. They are therefore calling for the emperor penguins to be included by the US in its “US Endangered Species Act” and classified as “endangered”. Thus, environmental laws could also be applied in Antarctica to have to protect the emperor penguins. “Protection of species through legal frameworks should facilitate conservation actions that in turn should help mitigate climate change impacts,” says study co-author Shaye Wolfe of the Center for Biological Institute.

Emperor penguins usually breed on fast ice, rarely on land. But in recent years, extreme events have forced some colonies to breed on the ice shelf. There they hardly find protection from the weather conditions. The result: higher mortality among the young. Picture: Michael Wenger

The fact that emperor penguins are often negatively impacted by the effects of climatic change has already been demonstrated by some of the study’s co-authors. But for the first time, extreme events, which are likely to become more frequent as a result of climate change, have now been included in the modelling of impacts on sea ice, the breeding ground of emperor penguins. The team then looked at the impact on resilience, redundancy and representation, which are called the “3Rs”. “Together, the 3Rs encompass aspects that contribute to species persistence (e.g. demography, spatial distribution, diversity) and are important for assessing climate threats in the foreseeable future,” the British Antarctic Survey BAS writes in this regard. And here it showed that the loss of sea ice at the current rate would reduce virtually all 54 colonies to such an extent that the animals will be considered “quasi-extinct” by 2100. “The models predict that if we do not act now to curb greenhouse emissions emperor penguin populations will decline by four-fifths by 2060 and be virtually extinct by the end of this century,” BAS’ Dr Peter Fretwell explains.

The study shows for the first time how extreme events caused by climate change threaten emperor penguins. This includes habitat loss due to melting sea ice as well as sudden cold snaps, glacier collapse and other events. Picture: Michael Wenger

The authors of the study call on decision-makers and also to take larger and more comprehensive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For in this way, according to the experts, the survival of the emperor penguins as a species could be strengthened by the creation of refuges in the Antarctic. This is because Antarctica, unlike the Arctic, is not evenly affected. Compliance with the Paris climate agreement could lead to the animals surviving in certain places. But it is important to make decisions now to improve the future of the penguins, says Dr Phil Trathan of BAS and co-author. And lead author and longtime Kaiser expert Dr. Stephanie Jenouvrier of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute says, “Scientists have a responsibility to make people aware of the need for change through objective evidence. With the help of a dedicated team, we have put together this paper for the authorities (USFWS) to provide additional analyses of future projections to help inform policy and protection for the species.”

The graph shows how sea ice concentrations will behave under different warming scenarios and what impact this will have on emperor penguin colonies. Only by adhering to the Paris Agreement would the survival of the penguins as a species be guaranteed (black) despite the massive loss of colonies (red). Graphic: Natalie Renier, WHOI

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Jenouvrier, S., Judy, C.-C., Wolf, S., Holland, M., Labrousse, S., LaRue, M., Wienecke, B., Fretwell, P., Barbraud, C., Greenwald, N., Stroeve, J., & Trathan, P. N. (2021). The call of the emperor penguin: Legal responses to species threatened by climate change. Global Change Biology, 00, 1- 22. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15806

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