Climate Change and Penguins

Climate change is an environmental concern which is affecting most species across the world. Even for humans, the threat that climate change poses is huge. However, one species which is now facing greater risk than ever from the problem of climate change is the penguin.

While penguins have a remarkable ability to survive in some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, penguins are more and more commonly being highlighted as a species which is coming under extreme threat of extinction due to changes in the climate which are believed to be caused by human activities.

On the whole, global climate change is affecting penguins and their habitats in three major ways.

1. Loss of breeding habitat

The Emperor, Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo penguin, are all penguins which breed in Antarctica, and the sea-ice around the Antarctic provides an important habitat for Emperor penguins to raise their chicks.

When Emperor penguin chicks hatch, their feathers lack the waterproofing that is so commonly attributed to adult Emperor penguins. As such, if the sea ice on which the Emperor penguins rear their chicks melts too early, then the chicks will most likely fall into the sea and die.

Although most of the sea-ice which surrounds Antarctica regularly undergoes seasonal melting, the rapid temperature increases being witnessed at the Antarctic Peninsula are causing this sea ice to melt much sooner than it would have done previously. Because of this, many colonies of Emperor penguins that breed in this area, are now suffering from greater declines in population, which is increasing the Emperor penguin’s risk of extinction in the near future.

While the Adelie penguin does not rear chicks on the sea-ice, climate change is also damaging their breeding sites too. Unlikely as it might seem, higher temperatures in the Antarctic actually result in increased air moisture and snowfall. For the Adelie penguin this is disastrous, especially as they rely on the ground of the Western Antarctica Peninsula shoreline to be snow-free when rearing their chicks.

Even when Adelie penguins do find safe locations to rear their chicks, the reduction in the number of habitats suitable for raising penguin chicks mean, that the Adelie penguin is having to compete more fiercely with other species of penguin such as the Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, to ensure the best breeding sites.

2. Reduced food supply

However, it is not just penguins which breed in the Antarctic which are being affected by climate change. For penguins such as; the King, Rockhopper, Macaroni and Royal penguin, which live in the Southern oceans which surround the Antarctic, a reduction in the availability of food is having dramatic consequences.

Since global climate change has been causing the rapid melting of sea-ice, the amount of krill found in the southern oceans has decreased significantly in recent years. Krill are a small crustacean which many penguins feed upon, and they survive by feeding off the algae which forms on the underside of the sea ice. So the reduction in sea-ice which has resulted from climate change has meant there has been much less food for penguins to eat.

Another problem being caused by climate change which is having negative effects on the penguins food supply is ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is caused by the greater absorption of greenhouse gases like Carbon Dioxide into the oceans. As these gases are absorbed in greater quantities, the oceans become less hospitable places for plankton and other forms of calcifying organisms to live.

Because plankton is a major part of the food chain for many species of fish on which some penguins feed, ocean acidification caused by climate change, is also affecting the survival of penguins, and could provide another contributing factor to their declining populations.

3. Increased incidents of chick and adult mortality

While the problems associated with chick mortality for the Emperor and Adelie penguin have already been discussed, many other species of penguin are also facing increased risk of mortality due to the effects of global warming.

Penguins which live in more temperature areas around the Galapagos Islands, and the coasts of South America, and Southern Africa, such as; the Galapagos, Humboldt, Magellanic and African penguin, are also experiencing greater risk of mortality.

Although the Galapagos penguin often has to survive through natural incidents of El Nino events, it is now believed that climate change will cause these El Nino events to become more severe.

As many Galapagos penguins are prone to dying from starvation during a normal strength El Nino, if these incidents were to become much worse, then the mortality rates of both adult and chick Galapagos penguins would surely increase to such an extent that it would seriously threaten this species with extinction.

The Future of Penguins

Of course this is how climate change is affecting penguins and their habitats today. But if climate change is allowed to get worse then it is likely that many species of penguin will disappear altogether!

Therefore, ensuring the reduction of global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions is an important step in ensuring the survival of these beautiful birds for generations to come. Also, making sure that other contributing factors which can cause declines in penguin populations are protected against, like oil spills, pollution, and habitat destruction, will be necessary to conserve penguins for the future.

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