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Global warming pushing emperor penguins to brink of extinction by 2100 – Sydney Morning Herald

Scientists like Professor Mary-Anne Lea, (shown here with gentoo penguins), say it’s still possible to prevent emperor penguins becoming functionally extinct within 100 years.

Scientists like Professor Mary-Anne Lea, (shown here with gentoo penguins), say it’s still possible to prevent emperor penguins becoming functionally extinct within 100 years.

But this vast sea ice is disappearing or breaking apart because the human use of fossil fuels has caused global temperatures to rise.

Population modelling by a United States study led by Dr Stephanie Jenouvrier forecasts that emperor penguins will become “quasi-extinct” by 2100 if sea ice declines at the projected rate. The report was published this week in Global Change Biology.

Sea ice is breaking apart and melting because of human-induced climate change.

Sea ice is breaking apart and melting because of human-induced climate change.Credit:Mary-Anne Lea

The study was led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and authored by 14 international scientists, including Australian scientist Barbara Wienecke, an emperor penguin expert with the Australian Antarctic Division.

“If global warming alters the patterns of ice break-out or stability, the ice may disappear before the chicks are ready to go to sea,” says Dr Wienecke. “Sea ice is also critical for prey species of emperor penguins such as krill.”

But the report’s authors also stressed that emperor penguin (affectionately known as “emps” amongst Antarctic scientists) extinction is not inevitable. If action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris climate agreement, enough sea ice will be left to support a reduced population of emperor penguins, they found.

“We need to act now, before it’s too late,” said Stephanie Jenouvrier, the study’s lead author and a seabird ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The tallest of all penguins, emperors stand almost 1.2 metres. After laying a single egg, females go off to hunt, and males nurture the egg through sub-zero temperatures by holding it on their feet and covering it in a feathered pouch.

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Professor Lea said an endangered listing would enable national programs in Antarctica to prioritise research and conservation of the species more generally.

And she remains an optimist: “This is the first step. I really hope we can galvanise to save this iconic species.”

Of the 60 known emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, 22 are located within Australia’s areas of operation in East Antarctica.

“This is the first step. I really hope we can galvanise to save this iconic species.”

Professor Mary-Anne Lea

Australia is currently involved in an international process to review the conservation status of emperor penguins in Antarctica and mechanisms for their protection.

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In 2016, the Antarctic’s second-largest colony lost more than 10,000 chicks in an area that had been thought safe.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species currently categorises emperor penguins as “near threatened” with a decreasing population.

On Monday evening the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change will publish its sixth assessment on the state of the climate and is expected to reveal more bad news on the extent global warming since the last major assessment in 2014.

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