February 28, 2024

Climate change threatens emperor penguins from extinction in large parts of their range, federal wildlife officials said Tuesday when they announced a proposal to protect these animals under the Endangered Species Act.

The penguins live on the Antarctic sea ice for much of the year, which disappears or breaks up due to the heat-storing gases released by human use of fossil fuels. The penguins need the ice to breed, raise their young and escape predators.

“The decisions made by policymakers today and over the next few decades will determine the fate of the emperor penguin,” Martha Williams, assistant director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.

If classified as threatened, the birds would join a few dozen species the federal government considers threatened by climate change, including polar bears, two species of seals, and 20 species of coral.

Although the species is not found in the United States, listing under the Endangered Species Act would mean federal agencies would have to minimize the damage caused by US activities in their habitat, such as fishing.

The proposal was shaped by scientific research independently published Tuesday in the journal Global Change Biology. This study found that if sea ice continued to disappear at the rate predicted by climate models, given current world energy trends and policies, then more than 80 percent of emperor penguin colonies would actually become extinct by 2100.

But that doesn’t have to be the case, emphasize the scientists. If the world takes quick and drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, there will be enough sea ice left to feed a reduced but still viable population of emperor penguins, they found.

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

“And not just for penguins,” noted Dr. Jenouvrier. “For us and for our children.”

The largest of all penguins, emperors are almost four feet tall. After laying a single egg, the females go hunting and the males feed the egg by holding it by their feet and covering it in a feathered pouch. After hatching, the parents take turns looking after their offspring. If the sea ice disappears before the young penguins swap their fluffy baby feathers for supple adult ones, they will not be able to swim in the cold water and will die.

In 2016, Antarctica’s second largest colony lost more than 10,000 chicks in what was considered to be a safe area. Sea ice is essentially frozen ocean. The penguins often cannot climb ice shelves to find habitat on land, and harsh conditions there can deplete the penguins’ energy reserves.

The Red List of Endangered Species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature currently classifies emperor penguins as “almost threatened” with declining populations.

Environmentalists hope the penguin listing will put pressure on the fish and wildlife service to consider the impact of fossil fuels on threatened species when helping to determine whether government permits should be issued.

“The hope is that the permits for US fossil fuel projects with these additional protective measures will have to weigh the damage to penguins and their Antarctic habitat in order to ultimately reduce pollution from heat inclusions worldwide,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological diversity. The environmental group had asked the United States to list the penguin and sued if it failed to act in the required timeframe. Among the 12 authors of the study by Dr. Jenouvrier were two employees of the group.

Tuesday’s Fish and Wildlife Service proposal ushers in a 60-day public comment period.