The Downward March of the Penguins

Jan 26, 2009 6:15pm

The emperor penguins are the kings of the cold.  But a new study says they could be wiped out by warmth by century’s end.  You may remember them as movie stars — from “March of the Penguins,” the 2005 documentary, or “Happy Feet,” the 2006 computer-animated comedy.  Both films marveled how they migrate for up to 70 miles, in the darkness of the Antarctic winter, to bear their young, often in temperatures that push 40 degrees below zero.  Now there’s a paper, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, saying that by the end of the century, if climate warming continues at current rates, there is a chance the penguins’ numbers could be diminished by 95 percent.  The full text of the paper is HERE. "These are serious declines in the population, and would put it at considerable risk for going completely extinct in that area," said Hal Caswell, a senior biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and one of the paper’s six authors. Caswell said they do not expect a gradual increase in temperature.  Instead, there could be surprise warm spells, which would melt the sea ice on which the penguins spend most of their time along the Antarctic coast. They’ve happened before, and after one of them, the penguins’ numbers temporarily declined by half.  Increases in greenhouse warming would presumably make such spells more frequent and intense, he said.  Caswell and his colleagues used the computer models that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did to make its 2007 assessment of the global climate.  Mindful of criticisms of such models, they combined the calculations from ten of them, whose output in the past has corresponded to what actually happened to Antarctic sea ice. They studied one section of Antarctica known as Terre Adelie, due south of Australia.  It is useful because there is a French research base there (“March of the Penguins” was filmed in the area) from which emperor penguin populations have been consistently monitored for almost 50 years. The climate models said the penguin colony there “likely will shrink from its present size of 3,000 to only 400 breeding pairs” by the year 2100, unless levels of greenhouse gases stop increasing under what the IPCC refers to as a “business as usual” scenario.  Chances of a 95 percent decline in population is somewhere between 40 and 80 percent.  "We should be concerned about it because the world would be much a less rich place without emperor penguins,” said Caswell. "We do have to remember that they are part of an entire ecosystem, and if the charismatic species are being affected, you can be sure that there are also less well-known and less familiar species that are being affected by the kinds of changes that are going on."   

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