60 Percent of Some Antarctic Penguin Colonies Could Decline by 2100, Study Says

Some parts of Antarctica will be a "refuge" to the species.
June 29, 2016, 3:40pm
Image: Megan Cimino

Climate change is pushing Antarctica's penguins to the brink.

More than half of the current colonies of Adélie penguin, a species that's found across the Antarctic mainland, could be in decline by the year 2100, says a new study, suggesting a future for Antarctica that looks much different than today.

But there's also good news. The research, which was published Wednesday in Scientific Reports, notes that some parts of Antarctica that could function as a "refuge" for Adélie penguins (which are smaller than Emperors, the other "true" Antarctic penguin species) to the year 2100 and beyond, suggesting that, in at least some parts of the continent, these aquatic, flightless birds will survive.

"This is a remote sensing study," explained lead author Megan Cimino, who recently wrapped up her doctoral degree at the University of Delaware, and is now based at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. Using satellite data and global climate model projections, she told me, "we looked at how climate change can affect the Adélie penguin: how it has in the past, and how it might in the future."

Adélie penguins at Shingle Cove, on Coronation Island in the South Orkneys, Antarctica. Image: Liam Quinn/Flickr

The reality is that this species has adapted to climate variations over millions of years (although none of those variations have been human-provoked, until now). According to the geologic record of Antarctica, Cimino said, as glaciers grew and certain breeding habitats iced over, colonies were abandoned. But when glaciers melted and it warmed up again, the penguins went back to rocky grounds where they like to breed.

Warming in Antarctica is no longer helping these animals. Populations are declining around the West Antarctic Peninsula, Cimino told me, which is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth. "In more southern locations, where the climate is either stable or cooling, they're doing better," she continued. These penguins don't typically migrate from one region to another, she said. "It can happen, but in general they're faithful to their nest sites."

As temperatures continue to climb higher, Cimino and her co-authors project that about 30 percent of current Adélie colonies might be in decline by 2060, and that about 60 percent of them could be in decline by the year 2099. She noted that the study didn't model penguin populations directly. Rather, it modelled changes to their habitat.

"It is surprising" that the numbers are potentially so high, Cimino agreed. "But it's not all doom and gloom. There are areas where their habitat is going to stay suitable past this century," she continued. "In those areas, the penguins should be fine."

All over the world, not just in Antarctica, scientists are working to identify "refuge" areas that could remain stable, or even benefit, from climate change—places where plant and animal species can continue to eke out a living while most regions become inhospitable.

Or maybe one day the only penguins left will be in aquariums and zoos. This week, scientists in Japan announced that, for the first time, they managed to artificially inseminate a Southern rockhopper penguin, which live near Antarctica in places like the Falkland Islands. (Artificial insemination has been done in other types of penguin, too.)

It's a bleak vision of the future. Finding those refuges looks even more important.