98% of emperor penguin colonies could disappear by 2100 as the ice melts. Can Endangered Species Law Save Them?
Emperor penguins thrive on the coast of Antarctica in cold conditions that any human would find extreme. Yet they have a narrow comfort zone and the balance is fine. If there is too much ice, the journeys to bring food from the ocean become long and arduous, and their young can starve. With too little ice, the chicks are at risk of drowning.
The climate changes we are witnessing are now putting this delicate balance and potentially all species at risk. “In a new study, my colleagues and I show that if current global warming trends and government policies continue, Antarctic sea ice will shrink at a rate that would dramatically reduce the number of emperor penguins developed. that almost all the colonies would become almost extinct by 2100, with little chance of recovery, ” said Stéphanie Jenouvrier. This is why the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to list the emperor penguin on the list of "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act . The proposal will be published in the Federal Register on August 4, 2021, following a 60-day public comment period.
The biggest threat that emperor penguins face is climate change. This disrupts the ice cover essential to their survival. The only way out is for governments to adopt policies that reduce the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
The United States' Endangered Species Act has previously been used to protect other species that are primarily at risk from climate change, including polar bears, ringed seals and several species of corals, all of which are listed on the list of endangered species. Emperor penguins do not live in the United States, so some of the Endangered Species Act measures designed to protect species' habitats and prevent their hunting do not apply directly. However, being listed under the Endangered Species Act could bring benefits. It could be a way to reduce the damage caused by US fishing fleets that might be operating in the region. And, with the measures expected from the Biden administration, the listing could potentially put pressure on U.S. agencies to take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
“I first saw an emperor penguin when I visited Pointe Géologie, Antarctica, during my doctoral studies. As soon as I set foot on the island, before our team unpacked our gear, my colleagues and I went to visit the emperor penguin colony just a few hundred yards from the French research station - the same colony featured in the movie March of the Penguins . We sat down to observe them through binoculars, but after 15 minutes a few penguins approached us. People think they are awkward, almost comical, with their walk, but the emperors walk with peaceful, serene grace across the sea ice. I can still feel them pulling on my shoelaces, their eyes twinkling with curiosity. I hope that my children and future generations will have the chance to meet these masters of the frozen world, ” says Stéphanie Jenouvrier.
Researchers have been studying emperor penguins around Peak Geology, at Terre Adélie, since the 1960s. These decades of data are now helping scientists assess the effects of anthropogenic climate change on penguins, their sea ice habitat and their sources of food. Penguins breed on “fast ice,” which is sea ice attached to the land. But they hunt for food in pack ice - sea ice that moves with wind or ocean currents and can merge. Sea ice is also important for resting, during their annual moult, and for escaping predators. The penguin population at Pointe Géologie halved in the late 1970s when sea ice declined and more male emperor penguins died, and the population never fully recovered from massive breeding failures. - what happened more frequently. To determine if the emperor penguin could qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service urged an international team of scientists, policy experts, climatologists and environmentalists to provide research evidence and projections on the threats posed by climate change to emperor penguins and their future survival.
penguin populations will be in decline by 2100
Emperor penguins have adapted to their current environment, but the species has not evolved to survive the rapid effects of climate change that threaten to reshape its natural environment. Decades of studies by an international team of researchers have been instrumental in establishing the need for protection. “Pivotal research in which I participated in 2009 warned that the Pointe Géologie colony will march towards extinction by the end of the century. And it won't just be this colony. In 2012, my colleagues and I examined all known emperor penguin colonies identified in images provided from satellites and determined that each colony will decline by the turn of the century if greenhouse gases continue to grow. increase at the same rate. We found that the behaviors of the penguins that might help them adapt to changing environmental conditions could not reverse the anticipated global decline. "Significant environmental changes, such as the late formation and early loss of sea ice on which the settlements are located, already increase risk. A dramatic example is the recent collapse of Halley Bay, the second largest emperor penguin colony in Antarctica. Over 10,000 cubs died in 2016 when sea ice broke too early. The colony has not yet recovered. Including these extreme events, we predicted that 98% of the colonies will be extinct by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to follow their current course, and that the world population will decrease by 99% of its size. historical !.
Reaching Paris Agreement Goals Could Save Penguins
The results of the new study showed that if the world meets the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, by keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F) above pre-industrial temperatures, it will could protect enough habitat to stop the decline of emperor penguins.
But the world is not on track to meet the Paris Agreement. According to an estimate made by Climate Action Tracker, policies as currently pursued by countries have a greater than 97% probability of leading to a 2 C (3.6 F) exceedance. Based on recent government announcements, the increase is estimated to be around 2.4 ° C (4.3 ° F). So it seems that the emperor penguin is the proverbial "canary in the coal mine".
The future of the Emperor Penguins, and much of life on Earth, including humanity, ultimately depends on decisions made today.
Sources: Stéphanie Jenouvrier Associate Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution - http://www.whoi.edu/profile/sjenouvrier/ Marine ecologist Philip Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey contributed to this article.