Penguins and Climate Change

The climate crisis is impacting so many beloved and iconic animals including penguins. Everything we read sounds dire for many penguin species.

A new scientific study “found that if climate change continues at its current rate, emperor penguins could virtually disappear by the year 2100 due to loss of Antarctic sea ice.

Dependent on sea ice for breeding, feeding and molting, emperor penguins arrive at their ice colony from feeding in the ocean after the ice has formed. When the sea ice has declined in the past due to natural fluctuations, penguins died and populations decreased. The study indicated if we don’t decrease greenhouse gas emissions there will be an 86% decline in total number of emperor penguins.

Melting ice in the Antarctic is having an impact on two other penguin species, the chinstrap and Adélie penguins. These birds are dependent on krill for food, which in turn, depend on sea ice as a source of food and shelter. The loss of ice that is already happening could trigger the krill to move out of Antarctic waters or cause a massive decline. “A new study based on careful analysis of 90 years of scientific catch data from the South Atlantic Ocean shows that the geographic distribution of Antarctic krill has contracted nearly 300 miles southward in concert with ocean warming…” One colony of chinstrap penguins in Antarctica has fallen by 77% in 50 years.

Unlike other penguin species, king penguins are not tied to ice but have colonies on islands in the sub-antarctic region, north of the Antarctic. In nesting season king penguin parents take turns foraging at sea to feed their chicks, often flying as far 500 kilometers (310 miles) round-trip. The birds fly south to the northern reach of colder Antarctic waters to feed mainly on lanternfish that form huge schools at these edges. Climate models predict that warming seas will make the penguins’ foraging trips longer as their prey move to colder waters. Longer foraging trips leave the remaining penguin parent so hungry that they will leave the nest, meaning certain death for chicks. In 2018 scientists found that the world’s largest king penguin biggest colony had shrunk by 90%.They aren’t sure why but it could be that the penguins moved to be closer to prey.

More about climate change and penguins

Read more about the changing Antarctic ecosystem