Have you ever seen an emperor penguin in the wild? If not, time could be running out as a recent report from Reuters delivered grim news about their survival under the ongoing climate crisis which could see them go extinct in the next 30 to 40 years.
The grave warning comes from biologist Marcela Libertelli and the Argentine Antarctic Institute (IAA) who are no strangers to the world’s largest penguin. Having carried out extensive research on Antarctica's frozen tundra where emperor penguin colonies can be found, Libertelli says projections indicate the species has just a few decades left on Earth if steps aren’t taken to mitigate weather changes due to the climate crisis.
Where the changing climate is decimating the species relates to their reproductive cycle as some colonies haven’t been able to keep chicks alive for several years in a row. At Halley Bay in the Weddell Sea, Libertelli says all of the chicks born to the second-largest colony of emperor penguins have died for the last three years consecutively.
The chicks are dying because sea ice freezing too late or melting too early is exposing them to freezing Antarctic waters. Unlike adults, baby emperor penguins don’t yet have the plumage needed to survive under these conditions.
Emperor penguins are uniquely vulnerable to the threat of habitat degradation because of melting sea ice as they have the longest reproductive cycle of any penguin. This means the parents must sit on solid sea ice with their chicks until they have developed enough to be swim-ready, but they simply aren’t being given the time to complete the cycle.
"If the water reaches the newborn penguins, which are not ready to swim and do not have waterproof plumage, they die of the cold and drown," Libertelli said, and it doesn’t look like conditions are set to improve for the penguins any time soon.
"[Projections suggest that the colonies that are located between latitudes 60 and 70 degrees [south] will disappear in the next few decades; that is, in the next 30, 40 years,” she said.
The emperor's unique features include the longest reproductive cycle among penguins. After a chick is born, one parent continues carrying it between its legs for warmth until it develops its final plumage.
The warning, for now, remains exactly that as it’s still possible that steps can be taken to control and mitigate the most dangerous effects of climate change. However, achieving results is dependent on serious political commitments as well as personal lifestyle changes, and time is running out if we’re to secure the future of animals like the emperor penguin.
"The disappearance of any species is a tragedy for the planet," said Libertelli. "Whether small or large, plant or animal – it doesn't matter. It's a loss for biodiversity."