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Penguins

Tomas Munita/ Greenpeace

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Klimanews: Counting Penguins in Antarctica

The health of penguin colonies give us vital clues about the impact of the climate crisis in the Antarctic. Scientists on a current expedition have some good and bad news.

By Chris Cummins

Dr. Alex Borowitz and his team from Stony Brook University in New York have spent the past few weeks counting penguins in Antarctica. They’ve travelled on the Greenpeace research ship the Arctic Sunrise and have logged nests on the rocky, icy outcrops of the Weddell Sea, below South America.

„Most of the time, we’re counting nests in the colony.“ Alex told me, „they’re about a flippers’ length apart from one another And so we’re trying to understand really what the reproductive output of this colony is. So what we have actually been doing this time around is counting chicks.“

That seems to me to be a very pleasant way to pass your working days, but the scientists’ work is of great significance. It will help us to better understand the health and resilience of the wider ecosystem in Antarctica, and therefore to better understand our changing climate.

“We think of penguins really as a sentinel species in the Weddell Sea and all over Antarctica because they’re one of the most easily visible species,” Alex says “but they also interact with krill and other species that are really the key to life down here in Antarctica.

So, when you can study penguins, you can see what’s likely going on with all of these other species as well.”

Dr Alex counting penguins

© Tomás Munita / Greenpeace

A “sentinel species” is a species used to detect risks to humans by providing advance warning of a danger. The canary detecting gas in coal mines is the most obvious example. In other words, the penguins can tell us how worried we need to be about regions in Antarctica.

They Tell Us About Threats

If the penguins are healthy, the whole ecosystem is likely to be healthy. But where their numbers begin to decline, then alarm bells begin to ring for scientists.

“They indicate what’s going on, how fast climate change is impacting and the different disruptions it’s causing”, explains Greenpeace Campaigner Louisa Casson. “They also tell us about threats like industrial fishing and how those are affecting the whole ecosystem.”

The Bad News

You won’t be surprised to read that many of scientists findings are alarming.

“There have been a few worrying signs that we picked up on over the last couple of decades on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula,” Alex told me, on a line from the Arctic Sunrise ship. “In a couple of cases, we’ve seen a total colony collapse where an island of Adélie penguins has just disappeared. And then in other cases, a couple of years ago, we sailed to the South Shetland Islands, just north of the peninsula and found some chinstrap penguin populations there that had declined by over 50 percent.”

beautiful penguins

© Tomás Munita / Greenpeace

Seeing penguins disappear is clearly distressing, but sometimes it is concerning to see certain breeds of penguins in unusual areas.
On this current trip, the scientists have documented the continuation of a process rather wonderfully called “gentoofication”.

Gentoofication

Gentoo penguins are those very cute looking penguins who have arrestingly vivid red-orange beaks and distinctive white markings on their heads. Unlike other penguins, gentoos can’t breed in particularly icy conditions and they avoid sea-ice. They are traditionally associated with the Argentinian coast or the Falkland Islands.

But for decades, as temperatures have risen on Antarctica, they have been spotted ever further south. This latest expedition on the Arctic Sunrise confirmed this trend.

“We’ve found a new Gentoo penguin colony just off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, the farthest south Gentoo colony in the Weddell Sea area,” reports Alex. Greenpeace campaigner Louisa calls the discovery “a clear sign of the climate crisis impacting these edges of the Weddell Sea”, since it “really shows how fast the pace of change is happening here in the Antarctic.”

more penguins

© Abbie Trayler-Smith / Greenpeace

It’s not all bad news though.

Antarctica is certainly warming and it is certainly warming at a faster pace than most other regions. But its climate is complicated and some areas are warming faster than others.

There are micro-climates affected by the topography: sometimes steep-sided mountain ranges trap air; and there are many complex currents at work. On this current expedition, Dr Alex Borowitz has found what seems to be a sanctuary for wildlife in an area that has been less affected by the climate crisis.

„A Little More Time“

“Across the western side of the Weddell Sea and all of the Adelie penguin colonies that we visited, we’ve seen some pretty good evidence for stability in these populations”, says Alex. “It’s quite exciting.”

He says that the stability of these Adelie penguin populations give us hope that the rest of the Weddell Sea ecosystem is doing OK for now. “It means that the worst of climate change is certainly not here yet. And maybe we’ll give all of these species a little more time to adapt as the climate changes down in Antarctica.”

The Need For A Marine Protection Area

Of course, if these species have found a temporary refuge from climate change, it is very important that everything possible is done to protect this refuge. The happy discovery of the healthy penguin populations should add weight to the calls to make the area around the Weddell Sea a Marine Protection Area.

Penguins feeding

Tomas Munita/ Greenpeace

“Places that might be a refuge against climate change are places that are absolutely key to maintaining species and biodiversity,” says Alex, “We really need to keep these places where things are going OK, free of any sort of other potential negative impacts, things like fishing and all of these other human impacts so that they can keep on going while other places might be struggling.”

An Empty Promise

There has been plenty of noble talk on a diplomatic level about doing exactly that.

There’s a powerful entity called the Antarctic Ocean Commission. A decade ago, the 25 nations and political bodies that make up the Commission, including the USA and the EU, proposed creating a Marine Protection Area in the region. There was, to quote Monty Python, much rejoicing.

Boat

Greenpeace

But those promises haven’t been fulfilled.

“This is just yet more evidence of why that is so critical to protect places that are still really healthy habitats for amazing wildlife like penguins,” says Greenpeace’s Louisa Casson. “It’s just another reason why governments should be acting now to protect the Weddell Sea while they still can.”

Scientists say we need to protect at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030 if we’re going to safeguard this life support system for our planet. Yet right now, just one percent of the global ocean is protected.

An Opportunity To Adapt

Dr Alex says that the region is not immune from climate change. The crisis we have caused by pumping emissions into the air, and by continuing to build new motorways, runways and coal power plants, is coming for this region too.

But if there is a time-lag that gives us more time to react. “We really hope that the Weddell Sea can be a climate refuge for a lot of these species where the worst impacts of climate change are spread out over time,” he says. “That would give species an opportunity to adapt to the changes and hopefully repopulate areas that might be hard hit in the years to come.”

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