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Three penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica © Natalie Long / WWF-Australia

Three penguins on an iceberg in Antarctica © Natalie Long / WWF-Australia

What do penguins mean for climate change?

13 Mar 2020

Keywords
  • antarctica
  • birds
  • climate change
  • penguins
  • threatened species

By Natalie Long, Social Media Specialist, WWF-Australia

 

Penguins have the world fooled. These birds, who always look dressed to impress, are the poster child for Antarctica. On land we often see them sliding on their bellies, waddling around willy-nilly in giant penguin groups, all the while looking quite clumsy. We are easily deceived by their black and white suits and seemingly non-existent legs. However, terrestrial antics are all a disguise, hiding the incredible creature that lies within.

 

Gentoo penguin in Antarctica © Natalie Long / WWF-Australia

 

It’s easy to forget that these creatures are constantly living through the severe conditions that come with their polar home: Antarctica. The moment they step into the icy ocean these birds turn into athletes that are conquering the roughest and coldest seas on Earth. These curious creatures are one of evolution’s greatest accomplishments. But will they be able to adapt quickly enough to survive their rapidly changing environment?

 

What is happening in Antarctica?

 

Here in Antarctica, a place so far from human civilisations, we are changing the intricate polar network before we can even come close to understanding how it all connects within itself, and to us. Just last month, the Antarctic Peninsula had its warmest day on record. On the western peninsula of Antarctica, certain Adélie penguin colonies have collapsed - some by 90%.

 

Meanwhile, new Adélie penguin colonies have become accessible, which were once unreachable for years due to sea ice. Chinstrap penguin nests have seen a 50% decline on Elephant Island. Emperor penguin populations have been estimated to decrease by more than 50% over the current century. Climate change is leaving an unquestionable dent in Antarctica, and what is truly frightening is the full consequences are unknown.

 

What could be happening to penguins?

 

On the western peninsula, the changing climate means different weather is turning sheets of snow and ice into a land of rain and mud. Older penguins are equipped with waterproof layers of feathers allowing them to move swiftly in the water, and also allowing them to stay warm on land. Their feathers are the human equivalent of a wetsuit.

 

An Adelie penguin chick in Antarctica © Natalie Long / WWF-Australia

 

By comparison the penguins that are just hatched are born with their fluffy little feathers not yet grown enough to moult. As rain falls and snow melts into pools of water, juvenile penguins struggle to stay dry. They become wet and muddy and are unable to stay warm and incapable of preening themselves. At night they become extremely vulnerable. When the temperature drops and the wind picks up, if they are still not dry, wet penguins may not make it through the night.

 

Unfortunately, this is just one of many impacts that a warming climate could have on Antarctica. These clever little birds tend to build nests of pebbles and return to the same site each year at the same time, in rain, sun, snow, or melting ice. Now, sometimes sites where they are used to building their nests are collapsing as snow melts.

 

What is WWF-Australia doing?

 

In Antarctica, we have begun tugging at the delicate gears that hold this fragile ecosystem together, but there is time to turn it around. Through new technology WWF-Australia are working to better understand the continent so that we can provide essential protection for critical habitats on the Antarctic Peninsula.

 

Adelie penguins on glaciers in Antarctica © Natalie Long / WWF-Australia

 

With this new knowledge, together with collaborators we will use this information to call for an increase of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean to at least 30% by 2030. This will help safeguard Antarctic species and their habitats by providing space for them to adapt to changes. In addition, MPAs will aid in increasing Antarctica's resilience to the pressures of climate change.

 

MPAs are a powerful tool which are essential in the future wellbeing of Antarctica. We are now almost eight billion people and must realise we are not separate from the rest of life on Earth.

 

The protection of Antarctica is in our interests as much as the interest of penguins.