The US government announced comprehensive protections for the emperor penguin under the US Endangered Species Act on Tuesday. They warned that the species faces extinction owing to sea ice loss and rising global temperatures.
Experts predict that 99% of the world’s emperor penguin population will disappear by 2100 if carbon pollution is ignored. However, under low and high carbon emission scenarios, their worldwide population size is predicted to decline by 26% to 47% by the year 2050.
The sea ice in Antarctica, where penguins spend most of the year, is on the frontline of climate stress. The ice is melting and disintegrating due to heat-trapping gases created by usage of fossil fuels. Sea ice is essential to the penguins’ habitat — it is where they breed, raise their chicks and escape predators.
The anticipated population decline is not uniform throughout Antarctica. The Ross and Weddell Seas are strongholds for the species, and populations in these areas will most likely remain stable. However, the melting sea ice can cause emperor penguin colonies in the Indian Ocean, Western Pacific Ocean, Bellingshausen Sea and Amundsen Sea sectors to experience more than a 90% drop.
The US Geological Survey defines “endangered” as the possibility of a species going extinct significantly across its range. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are between 625,000 and 650,000 emperor penguins in the wild currently. In 2016, the Antarctic’s second-largest colony of the birds lost more than 10,000 chicks due to record-low sea ice before the chicks had grown their feathers. The population has still not recovered.
The service’s director, Martha Williams, said in a statement that the listing reflected the “growing extinction crisis.”
“Climate change is having a profound impact on species around the world and addressing it is a priority for the Administration,” Williams said. “The listing of the emperor penguin serves as an alarm bell but also a call to action.”
However, there is still time to act. The scientists determined that there will be enough sea ice left over to maintain a smaller but viable population of emperor penguins. But that is only if the world takes rapid action to cut emissions.