Washington, DC, October 10, 2008 – Half to three-quarters of major Antarctic penguin colonies – including the iconic Emperor Penguin, which was made famous by the blockbuster hit March of the Penguins – will likely experience significant decline or disappearance as a result of climate change, according to a new report from World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
The findings follow a massive rescue operation on Tuesday in which hundreds of temperate penguins that mysteriously turned up on warm Brazilian beaches – possibly due to climate change impacts, according to some scientists – were returned to their Southern Ocean nesting area, more than a thousand miles to the south.
“From polar bears in the Arctic to penguins in the Antarctic, climate change is having a devastating impact on animals around the world,” said Dr. Sybille Klenzendorf, managing director of species conservation for WWF. “Penguin colonies on Antarctica have already experienced sharp declines over the past half century as rising temperatures have diminished sea ice conditions and the penguins’ access to food.”
The WWF report released today, 2°C is Too Much, shows that a global average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which climate models forecast could be reached in as few as 40 years, would sharply reduce sea ice coverage in the Southern Ocean where penguins live, breed and feed. The report concludes that such significant warming and sea ice loss would likely lead to the marked decline or complete disappearance of many penguin colonies, including 50 percent of Emperor Penguins and 75 percent of Adélie Penguins.
According to the British Antarctic Survey, surface temperatures along the West coast of the Antarctic Peninsula have already increased nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last half-century – many times the global average. Klenzendorf noted that sea ice coverage in that area is 40 percent less than it was a quarter century ago and that penguin populations have already declined significantly. According to a report issued last year by WWF, Adélie Penguin populations have dropped by 65 percent over the past 25 years and at least one population of Emperor Penguins has declined by half over the past 50 years.
Over the past few weeks, a highly unusual spectacle has unfolded in Brazil as hundreds of Magellanic (or Patagonian) penguins, native to the southern tip of Argentina, have washed up on beaches around Rio de Janeiro, many emaciated or deceased. While the role of climate change in this particular instance is unclear, some scientists have speculated that changes in ocean currents or temperatures, which may be related to climate change, could be responsible for their movement more than a thousand miles north of their traditional nesting area. A recent article in the journal BioScience concludes that penguins may be driven farther north in search of food as prey populations shift in response to climate change.
Dr. Richard Moss, WWF vice president for climate change, said the impacts of climate change are currently being felt most acutely in the Polar Regions. “The Arctic, the Antarctic Peninsula, sub-Antarctic islands and the Southern Ocean are warming rapidly – at rates well above the global average. As these regions continue to warm, species, including penguins and polar bears, are unwittingly serving as our sentinels. They are calling out attention to the ecological disruption and the wave of extinctions that climate change is bringing not just to those regions, but to the entire planet.”
Moss was speaking from Barcelona, Spain, where the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is holding its World Conservation Congress this week. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which was released at the meeting, “[t]here is growing evidence that climate change will become one of the major drivers of species extinctions in the 21st Century.”
“We must heed the warning from the penguins, the polar bears and other sentinel species,” said Moss. “We must improve their prospects for survival and spare other species by sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The rapid warming of the Arctic and portions of the Antarctic is a clear sign that our window of opportunity for solving the climate crisis is closing. The stakes could not be higher for the negotiations on a new global climate deal that will take place this December in Poland and conclude next December in Denmark.”
Download the report:
2o is Too Much! Impacts of 2 degrees Celsius global warming on Antarctic Penguins (PDF 1.27 MB)
Note to editors
WWF’s report is based on a scientific study conducted by David Ainley, Joellen Russell and Stephanie Jenouvrier: The fate of Antarctic penguins when Earth's tropospheric temperature reaches 2°C (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels. Both WWF’s report and the scientific study can be downloaded at: www.panda.org/antarctica.