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Climate Change Is Already Disrupting Delicately Balanced Penguin Colonies

In Antarctica, warming temperatures are wreaking havoc on Adélie penguins' breeding habitat.

Climate Change Is Already Disrupting Delicately Balanced Penguin Colonies

[Photo: vladsilver via Shutterstock]

Bad news for penguins. Thanks to climate change, their home in Antarctica is getting too warm for them. By 2060, the population of Adélie penguins could drop by 20%, and by 2099, 60% of all Adélie penguin colonies could be in decline.

Adélie penguins need a very particular habitat, although it’s not a rare one. They make their nests on solid ground, free of snow and ice, and use pebbles to keep their eggs and chicks dry. Meltwaters can drown the eggs and chicks, and snowmelt is something in plentiful supply thanks to climate change.

Further, says the study from the University of Delaware, warm waters could disrupt the population of krill, the Adélie penguins’ major food source.

The study looked at decades of satellite observations, collecting data on sea surface temperatures and sea ice concentrations. Using this, the team built a model for chick-rearing habitat suitability. By feeding future climate change models into their own penguin models, the researchers can predict how climate change will affect penguin populations in the future.

Mzphoto via Shutterstock

Adélie penguins are affected greatly by climate. Their habitat is a delicate balance of water, ice, and dry land, the boundaries of which all fluctuate according to changes in climate. Some amount of warming, which we have seen recently, is good for the Adélie penguins, because it opens up new nesting grounds. Historically, when glaciers have moved in over their breeding habitats, those colonies have been abandoned. But now things have gone too far, and the retreating ice, and corresponding meltwater, may cause havoc in future.

"It is only in recent decades that we know Adélie penguins population declines are associated with warming," lead author Megan Cimino said in a press release, "which suggests that many regions of Antarctica have warmed too much and that further warming is no longer positive for the species."

Adélie penguins are far from the only species to be affected by climate change, but thanks to their precarious position in a delicately balanced habitat, they’re a good indicator of disasters to come.

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