Earlier this year, during Polar Bear Week in October, our friends at Polar Bear International (PBI) spent several days livestreaming the polar bear migration from Canada’s Hudson Bay to Churchill in Manitoba, while also highlighting the ill-effects of climate change on this iconic species and the sea ice they call home.
Polar bears have become somewhat of a poster species for climate change, and the reasons are clear. They depend almost exclusively on sea ice for their survival—for traveling, hunting, mating, and resting. Unfortunately, over the past 25 years, global warming has caused a dramatic reduction in sea ice and the formation of thinner ice every season. This makes polar bears extremely vulnerable to changing climates.
Yet, polar bears are not the only wildlife species suffering from the consequences of climate change. On the other side of the world, in the southern hemisphere, there are 18 species of penguin that are all facing difficult challenges that come from melting sea ice and changing ocean conditions and weather patterns. Because penguins spend time on both land and in the sea, they are extremely sensitive to the fluctuations in the environment. This makes them effective indicator species, wherein the health of penguins often reflects the health of the oceans.
Penguins can be found in a variety of habitats, from frigid landscapes to deserts and the warm tropics. But for the four penguin species who live mostly in the Antarctic areas—the Emperor, Adélie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo penguin–the sea ice is just as important to their survival as it is to the polar bear.
Emperor penguins, Antarctica’s largest sea birds, are probably the species that most immediately comes to mind when we think of penguins. We’ve seen them in movies like “March of the Penguins” and “Happy Feet” and they are easily recognizable in their classic black and white tuxedo colors. These fuzzy, charismatic birds breed and raise their young almost entirely on sea ice. When an Emperor chick hatches, it has a very thin layer of down and is not yet able to regulate its body temperature. Unfortunately, due to warmer temperatures and thinner ice, more and more of the sea ice is breaking. If the sea ice breaks before the Emperor chick matures and grows its waterproof feathers, the chances of it getting swept into the ocean and drowning are high.
The Adélie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap penguins, on the other hand, prefer to breed and raise their chicks in nests on the Antarctica shorelines and coastlines that are free of ice and snow. Unfortunately, due to warmer climates and the resulting increase in humidity levels, these areas have begun to experience more snowfall. With no snow-free ground to nest on, these penguins have little opportunity to breed and further their species.
Climate change also impacts the penguin’s food supply in the Antarctic Ocean. Penguins predominantly feed on fish, squid, and krill. Antarctic krill typically live in the Antarctic Ocean and feed on the zooplankton and phytoplankton that grow on the underside of the ice. When the ice disappears, so do the krill…with no krill to eat, the penguins disappear as well. This entire food chain crumbles.
Thankfully, conservation organizations like our partners at the Global Penguin Society (GPS) have been working to come up with viable solutions to protect these beautiful animals. GPS works with penguin researchers and conservationists worldwide to promote penguin conservation of all 18 penguin species. They have been advocating for solutions for healthy oceans, and work actively to implement change at a policy level. More recently, they led the efforts to designate a an enormous UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of almost 8 million acres (roughly the size of Maryland) and also a Marine Protected Area for Punta Tombo, the largest Magellanic penguin colony in the world, which is home to 400,000 breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins
Climate change is one of the most urgent global issues of our time, impacting every aspect of our planet—from our wildlife, to our oceans, to our food supply. It is up to all of us to ensure that we leave behind a different legacy for our children, and for the wildlife who share this planet with us. We can look to organizations like Global Penguin Society to help show us the way towards this better future.
To learn more about the Global Penguin Society, visit their program page.