Sea ice is disappearing from Antarctica, melting away at an astounding rate of 30,000 square miles every year. You’re thinking about climate change’s effect on rising sea levels and coastal flooding, right? Consider this: while we worry about the impacts of all that water, others are also worrying about the loss of all that ice.
Retreating sea ice is poised to decimate the global population of emperor penguins, say scientists. Between 19 to 33 percent of them may disappear by the turn of the century if we don’t reverse current trends soon. That’s the disturbing conclusion of a new study just published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Sea ice is frozen sea water that lies atop the ocean’s surface. It fluctuates with the seasons, melting in summer and freezing over again in winter.
Sea ice provides irreplaceable habitat for a variety of arctic species, including polar bears, walruses and penguins. It also provides an ideal environment for algae growth. Algae is a primary food source for krill — a small shrimp-like crustacean that the emperor penguin depends on to survive.
Ever since the release of the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins, more people than ever know about the complicated and challenging lives led by these remarkable birds. After laying an egg during wintertime breeding at their colony locations, the females walk between 30 and 75 miles over open ice to find the sea and its rich food sources such as fish, squid and krill. Then they walk back and trade caretaking duties with their mates, who make the same amazing trek to find food.
The Relationship Between Penguins and Sea Ice
“The role of sea ice is complicated,” lead study author Stephanie Jenouvrier, a biologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, noted in a press release. “Too much ice requires longer trips for penguin parents to travel to the ocean to hunt and bring back food for their chicks. But too little ice reduces the habitat for krill, a critical food source for emperor penguins.”
Emperor penguins’ lives are difficult enough without having to deal with external forces that wreak havoc on the sea ice they need to survive.
“If sea ice declines at the rates projected by the IPCC climate models, and continues to influence emperor penguins … at least two-thirds of the colonies are projected to have declined by greater than 50 percent from their current size by 2100,” said Jenouvrier.
“None of the colonies…will provide a viable refuge by the end of 21st century,” Jenouvrier added.
Walt Meier, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center put the ice problem in terms we can all understand:
In the 1980s, the Arctic sea ice at the end of the summer was about the size of the lower 48 U.S. states. If you imagine taking a road trip across the sea ice — say you want to go from Los Angeles to New York — you could have driven on the sea ice the whole way. Now, you’d reach the ice edge at around the middle of Nebraska, so we’ve lost everything east of the Mississippi [River], and even a bit west of the Mississippi.
“It’s not happy news for the emperor penguin,” study co-author Hal Castellan told Reuters. If there’s a smidgen of good news, though, it comes from another recently released study that found these penguins may in fact be moving to new locations in response to environmental issues that make their colony locations less habitable. In the short term, that’s good.
The Woods Hole study is said to be the first to predict decline in emperor penguin populations across all of Antarctica. Without action, according to this research, at least nine of the existing 45 colonies will become “quasi-extinct.”
Scientists Call for Endangered Status and Establishment of Marine Reserves
Dr. Jenouvrier and her team concluded that the emperor penguin is “fully deserving of endangered status due to climate change.” They recommended that world governments designate these penguins, a move that would protect them by controlling influences on their habitat and well being by Southern Ocean fishing, tourism and in other ways.
They also urged creation of marine preserves off Antarctica. Other penguin experts agree.
“Given this new research, and what we already know about global temperatures warming and the changing climate, one of the things we should do immediately is put a marine reserve in place so we can make sure that we are not fishing in areas where the penguins need to forage for food,” Andrea Kavanagh, director of global penguin conservation for the Pew Charitable Trusts, told The Guardian. “It is one way of eliminating one more threat to the penguins.”
Will the world take heed? Or will these hardy little survivors find themselves slowly marching to oblivion?
Photo credit: Thinkstock