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Penguins in peril

The future looks bleak for gentoo penguins in Antarctica.

We’ve all heard how climate change is significantly affecting the world and many of us are consciously making steps to cut our carbon emissions and make our lives more environment-friendly. But do many of us truly know how global warming is altering the lives of the many species of animals that live on our planet?

International wildlife charity WWF has released a report that holds some startling revelations about the impact of global warming on penguins in the Antarctic. It doesn’t make happy reading, but it will make you pause and think about the plight of these poor creatures and what can be done to help.

The WWF report, Antarctic Penguins and Climate Change, claims the penguin population of Antarctica is under great pressure from global warming. Overfishing and a reduction in sea ice are threatening four populations of penguins that breed on the Antarctic continent – emperor, gentoo, chinstrap, and adelie.

Global warming is melting the sea ice and taking away precious nesting grounds on which some penguins raise their young, while food has become increasingly scarce. “As the ice melts, these icons of the Antarctic will have to face an extremely tough battle to survive”, says Emily Lewis-Brown, marine and climate change officer at WWF-UK. “One of the coldest environments in the world is actually seeing some of the fastest rates of global warming, and unless action is taken to reduce global CO2 emissions, the future of many Antarctic species looks bleak.”

The facts from the report are sobering; the Antarctic peninsula is warming five times faster than the average rate of global warming and the vast Southern Ocean has warmed all the way down to a depth of 3,000m. Sea ice – ice that forms from sea water – covers 40 per cent less area than it did 26 years ago off the west Antarctic peninsula. This decrease has led to a reduction in the numbers of krill – shrimp-like crustaceans – which are the main source of food for chinstrap penguins. The number of chinstraps has already decreased by as much as 30-66 per cent in some colonies, as reduced food has made it more difficult for the young to survive. It is the same story for gentoo penguins, which are increasingly dependant on the declining krill stocks as overfishing is killing off their normal food sources.

Arguably, the most famous and certainly the largest and most majestic penguin in the world is the emperor penguin. Sadly, it has seen some of its colonies halved in size over the past half century. Warmer winter temperatures and stronger winds have forced the penguins to raise their chicks on increasingly thinner sea ice. Tragically, in recent years sea ice has broken off early and many eggs and chicks have been blown away before they were able to survive on their own.

In the northwestern coast of the Antarctic peninsula, where warming has been the most dramatic, populations of adelie penguins have dropped by a staggering 65 per cent over the past 25 years. Not only has food become scarcer with the disappearance of sea ice, but the adelie’s cousins, the gentoos and chinstraps have also been attracted to the region to take advantage of warmer temperatures. Scientists are extremely worried for the adelie penguin, which needs land that is free of snow and ice to raise its young.

For more information and to read about initiatives to save this fragile habitat visit www.wwf.org.uk.

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