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Woods Hole study says climate change could kill off emperor penguins

Emperor penguins.
Emperor penguins.Stephanie Jenouvrier/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

You know them by their tuxedos, their hilarious waddle — and the incredible hardships they brave trying to survive in the bitter cold in Antarctica. They’ve been the stars of more than one stunning documentary.

Now, emperor penguins may be headed toward extinction not because of the cold, but because of warming caused by climate change, according to a new study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at Woods Hole, said in a statement that if the global climate keeps warming at the current rate, researchers expect that four out of five emperor penguins in Antarctica could disappear by 2100. “At that point, it is very unlikely for them to bounce back.”

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Jenouvrier is the lead author of a paper published in the journal Global Change Biology. Her coauthors included researchers from Woods Hole and several other countries.

The animals gained fame in “March of the Penguins,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, which won the Oscar for best documentary in 2006. They’ve also been featured in other major documentaries, including by the BBC and PBS.

The animals use sea ice as a base for breeding and molting, Jenouvrier said. Their colonies tend to be on ice locked in to the shoreline of Antarctica but close enough to open water to give the birds access to food. As the climate warms, the sea ice will gradually disappear, robbing the penguins of their habitat, food, and ability to hatch chicks, the statement said.

The researchers arrived at their results using two different models. One was a global climate model from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The other was a model of the penguin population itself.

“We’ve been developing that penguin model for 10 years,” Jenouvrier said. “It can give a very detailed account of how sea ice affects the life cycle of emperor penguins, their reproduction, and their mortality.”

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The researchers looked at three different scenarios, global temperature increases of 1.5 degrees Celsius (the goal in the Paris climate agreement), 2 degrees Celsius, and 5 to 6 degrees Celsius, the “business as usual” level if nothing is done to address climate change.

The study found that in the first two temperature scenarios, penguins will probably take a hit, but nothing like the hit they will take if nothing is done to curb global warming.

The researchers predicted that, in the third scenario, all 54 emperor penguin colonies would decline and 43 of the 54 would “decline by more than 90% and thus be quasi-extinct.”

The penguins “will effectively be marching toward extinction over the next century,” Jenouvrier said.

Jenouvrier had warned in previous research of the devastating impact of “business as usual” climate change on the penguins. The new study utilized new climate models to look at the worst-case impact as well as the two more hopeful scenarios in which the world cooperates to limit global temperature rise.

Peter Fretwell, a remote sensing specialist at British Antarctic Survey, who did not work on the study, told Newsweek the research shows the penguins cannot adapt in time to stop the decline of their population because of climate change, but meeting the terms of the Paris Agreement would provide some hope.

“The difference between a scenario where we do halt global warming and one where we don’t is stark,” Fretwell said. “It really is up to us. If we do not halt climate change then this species and many others will be in jeopardy.”

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Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com