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Australia Global warming pushing emperor penguins to brink of extinction by 2100

06:21  05 august  2021
06:21  05 august  2021 Source:   smh.com.au

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A group of Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) with chicks on the fast ice at the Emperor penguin colony at Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. © Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images A group of Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) with chicks on the fast ice at the Emperor penguin colony at Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.

It was aboard the gutsy Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, sailing between the Antarctic peninsula and Ross Sea, that the passengers discovered a new emperor penguin colony in the old-fashioned way: with their eyes.

Mary-Anne Lea, who was then a guide aboard the board and is now a professor in marine ecology at the University of Tasmania, has that moment 15 years ago etched in her memory.

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With a colleague, Professor Lea managed one quick flight to the colony aboard an ageing Russian helicopter and they waded through thigh-deep snow to take this photo.

"It took my breath away. It was a real voyage of discovery for everyone on board to see them in on the ice," says Professor Lea. "They are such beautiful birds that live in some of the harshest conditions on earth, breeding in the middle of the Antarctic winter. I was just in awe."

But climate change is threatening emperor penguins with extinction in much of their range, and this week federal wildlife officials in the United States announced a proposal to protect them under the Endangered Species Act.

The Antarctic scientific community has been raising the alarm on global warming and climate change for around 40 years, Professor Lea says. She finds it shocking that scientists were discovering new emperor colonies until only a few years ago, and now are charting their demise as a result of the climate emergency: "It's so devastating that's the situation we're now in."

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Emperor penguins live for most of the year on sea ice - which is essentially frozen ocean - and need it to breed, raise their young in the dark Antarctic winters and escape from predators like orca and sea leopards.

But this vast sea ice is disappearing or breaking apart because the human use of fossil fuels has caused global temperatures to rise.

Population modelling by a United States study forecasts that emperor penguins will become "quasi-extinct" by 2100 if sea ice declines at the projected rate. The report was published this week in Global Change Biology.

The study was led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and authored by 14 international scientists, including Australian scientist Barbara Wienecke, an emperor penguin expert with the Australian Antarctic Division.

"If global warming alters the patterns of ice break-out or stability, the ice may disappear before the chicks are ready to go to sea," says Dr Wienecke. "Sea ice is also critical for prey species of emperor penguins such as krill."

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But the report's authors also stressed that emperor penguin (affectionately known as "emps" amongst Antarctic scientists) extinction is not inevitable. If action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris climate agreement, enough sea ice will be left to support a reduced population of emperor penguins, they found.

"We need to act now, before it's too late," said Stephanie Jenouvrier, the study's lead author and a seabird ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The tallest of all penguins, emperors stand almost 1.2 metres. After laying a single egg, females go off to hunt, and males nurture the egg through sub-zero temperatures by holding it on their feet and covering it in a feathered pouch.

Professor Lea said an endangered listing would enable national programs in Antarctica to prioritise research and conservation of the species more generally.

And she remains an optimist: "This is the first step. I really hope we can galvanise to save this iconic species."

Of the 60 known emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, 22 are located within Australia's areas of operation in East Antarctica.

Australia is currently involved in an international process to review the conservation status of emperor penguins in Antarctica and mechanisms for their protection.

In 2016, the Antarctic's second-largest colony lost more than 10,000 chicks in an area that had been thought safe.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species currently categorises emperor penguins as "near threatened" with a decreasing population.

On Monday evening the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change will publish its sixth assessment on the state of the climate and is expected to reveal more bad news on the extent global warming since the last major assessment in 2014.

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