Penguin populations to plummet due to climate change – report

29 Jun 2016

A new study has suggested as much as 60pc of current Adélie penguin colonies could be in decline by the end of the century due to warming seas.

Adélie penguins breed throughout the Antarctic continent and they have emerged as environmental markers of late. They have profited from warming temperatures in the past, as glaciers vanish from their favoured rocky landscapes.

However, according to new research, that profiteering may be at an end, with the warming tipping point well and truly upon us. Researchers from University of Delaware now claim 30pc of current Adélie colonies may be in decline by 2060, with 60pc in decline by 2099.

Future Human

“It is only in recent decades that we know Adélie penguins 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 Megan Cimino, lead author in a paper published in Scientific Reports.

The study used satellite observations of sea surface temperature, sea ice and bare rock locations, marrying it with penguin populations over the years. Results suggest that climate novelty, particularly warm sea surface temperature, is detrimental to Adélie penguins at this stage, and will follow this trend into the future.

Safety in pockets

However, a quirk to the study, shows that the Antarctic continent as a whole is not in trouble, with pockets of refuges allowing for potential population booms if the penguins make it there.

While the West Antarctic Peninsula suffers the fastest warming on the planet – and penguin populations are plummetting – Cape Adare could provide hope.

The researchers note an 80pc decline in populations since the 1970s in the West Atlantic Peninsula, though Cape Adare’s warming is expected to be far slower, offering a key refuge for the species.

University of Delaware researchers project a grim future for Adélie colonies of penguins, via University of Delaware/ Megan Cimino

University of Delaware researchers project a grim future for Adélie colonies of penguins, via University of Delaware/ Megan Cimino

“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,” said Cimino.

“Though the climate there is expected to warm a bit, it looks like it could be a refuge in the future, and if you look back over geologic time it was likely a refuge in the past.”

Other penguins are suffering too. There are less than 2,000 Galápagos Penguins estimated to be remaining in the wild, one of many species native to the famous islands that have fallen on hard times. This is the only penguin species found north of the equator and in the Galápagos.

Main, extraordinarily cute Adélie penguin, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic