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ClimateWire, October 13, 2008

WILDLIFE: Warming could devastate South Pole penguins, scientists find
Lauren Morello, ClimateWire reporter

Two iconic Antarctic birds could be endangered by global warming of just 2 degrees Celsius, according to a report released Friday by the World Wildlife Fund.

The rise in temperature would reduce the area and thickness of Southern Ocean sea ice, the preferred habitat for Adélie and Emperor penguins -- the black-and-white birds featured in the recent films "Happy Feet" and "March of the Penguins."

Without that ice, half of the Emperor colonies and 75 percent of the Adélie colonies north of 70 degrees south latitude "are in jeopardy of marked decline or disappearance," said the study, which analyzed predictions of several climate models and data on the birds' preferred habitat.

The climatic changes could also reduce the populations of the penguins' preferred food sources, including silverfish and krill, predicted authors David Ainley of environmental consulting firm HT Harvey & Associates, Joellen Russell of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Stephanie Jenouvrier of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Many climate models predict that Earth's average temperatures could reach the temperature threshold examined in the paper -- 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures -- within 40 years. The world has already warmed an average of 0.6 degrees Celsius since the mid-19th century.

The World Wildlife Fund, which sponsored the research, used the study's release to call for steep, worldwide cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

"The rapid warming of the Arctic and portions of the Antarctic is a clear sign that our window of opportunity for solving the climate crisis is closing," Richard Moss, WWF's vice president for climate change, said in a statement. "The stakes could not be higher for the negotiations on a new global climate deal that will take place this December in Poland and conclude next December in Denmark."

'Life is not likely to get easier for penguins'

In July, University of Washington conservation biologist P. Dee Boersma concluded that plunging penguin populations are a signal that the world's oceans are suffering the effects of climate change, fishing and oil and gas development.

Boersma, who has studied penguins for more than 30 years, found that about two-thirds of the world's 16 to 19 penguin species are under threat. "Life is not likely to get easier for penguins," she wrote in Bioscience. "They have to withstand both climate variation and human development" (ClimateWire, July 2).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering extending Endangered Species Act protections to 10 penguin species in South America, southern Africa and Antarctica. The agency said last summer that listing the birds "may be warranted" but failed to meet a November 2007 deadline for deciding whether the species qualify and proposing a listing. The Center for Biological Diversity has filed suit against the agency in an effort to speed up its decision-making process.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton