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Can climate change threaten the Emperors’ way of life?

Emperor penguins are perhaps amongst the coolest, most awesome and charismatic animals living on the planet today. They are majestic and regal. They can swim to deeper depths than most fish and they live their entire lifetime on water and ice in the coldest, most surreal and desolate continent on Earth! Recent research findings however suggest that the Emperor penguins’ future in their Antarctic habitat may be threatened by impending changes to the sea ice as global climate change continues to take its toll.

Image courtesy of Lin Padgham 

Except during the Austral summer, the entire Antarctic continent is covered in mile upon mile of ice. Ice sheets covering the landscape can reach an average thickness of up to 1.9 kilometres. This can extend to all but the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula where it is somewhat warmer. Being the coldest, driest and windiest of all the continents, reaching temperatures down to -89°C, it is considered a frozen desert.

Image courtesy of Eli Duke

Only found in the Antarctic, Emperor penguins have a circumpolar distribution between 66° and 77° south latitude. Approximately about 600,000 individuals from 46 colonies are spread throughout the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic. These critters are almost always in the water, endlessly chasing food except during the Austral winter when they start to breed. Although some colonies have been observed to breed on land, such as some colonies in the Antarctic Peninsula, these animals almost always breed on stable sea ice near the coast up to 18 kilometres offshore. Breeding colonies are usually located in areas where ice cliffs and icebergs shelter them from the tumultuous Antarctic winds.

Throughout their evolutionary history, these charismatic birds have adapted living to their harsh polar habitat. Scientists however suggest that current trends in global climate warming may pose a threat to the Emperors’ way of life.

Image courtesy of Eli Duke

For a fact, climate warming poses a huge threat to the world we know today and the world we may know in the future. Trends and effects differ for every oceanic region, continent and locality with some experiencing more severe climatic changes than others. For the Antarctic, temperatures are relatively stable in most areas except in the Antarctic Peninsula and large parts of west Antarctica which had been observed to warm significantly within the past decades.

  Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts suggest that climate warming occurring in the Antarctic and its effect on the sea ice may facilitate a decline in Emperor penguin populations by about a third within the century! An in depth study of one colony in Adelie Land, east Antarctic and satellite data from other colonies throughout the Antarctic were used to extrapolate the fate of all Emperors.

Image courtesy of Anne Frohlich

Emperor penguins rely on sea ice to survive. Ideal sea ice conditions can provide them with ample food supply, nesting grounds and refuge. Too much sea ice and it will take them much longer to reach the sea, which could be detrimental to the survival of the chicks waiting in the colony for food supplied by the foraging parent. Too little sea ice and there will be less krill, shrimp-like organisms that makes up the penguins’ main diet.

  Projections suggest that populations will increase until 2040 but numbers will then decrease as sea ice retreat accelerates in some areas. However, there may be a big chance that the decline may be slower than anticipated. Scientists have yet to consider the immigration and emigration of the birds. While the projections assumed that the penguins were stationary and bred in the same breeding grounds year in year out, satellite tracking and various studies suggest that the penguins can be quite adaptable and can move from one breeding ground and on to establish another.

Image courtesy of Bryn Jones

In conclusion, predictions and scientific studies provide public awareness and calls for the need to protect these animals and other endemic organisms living in the Antarctic. Their endemism suggest that if they disappear from the Antarctic, they could be gone forever! Researchers urge governments to establish marine protected areas in the Antarctic and list the birds as endangered- so that restrictions to tourism and fishing may be imposed to buy time and avoid extinction as needed conservation and greenhouse gas mitigation strategies are put in place.

Do you want to go and see a glimpse of Antarctic's beauties and gain more knowledge about the issues they face? Join Frontier's Antarctica voyage, a trip through unexplored areas. Or simply join one of our many marine conservation projects around the world. Frontier runs over 300 dedicated conservationcommunityand adventure projects worldwide. See more from our volunteers on YouTubeFacebookTwitterFlickr and Instagram #FrontierVolunteer.