Adelie Penguins Extinct in a Decade in Some Areas?

Anne Casselman
for National Geographic News
December 28, 2007
Adélie penguins in Antarctica are in the midst of a major upheaval as climate change causes their icy habitat to warm up, experts say.

Some populations of the birds are thriving, but most are declining rapidly.

The penguins rely on winter sea ice as a platform for feeding on ocean krill.

But they also need the ice to shrink in the summer so they can access their breeding colonies on land.

The mid-latitudes of the Antarctic Peninsula once provided the perfect habitat for the penguins—but not anymore.

"That region has experienced the most rapid warming during winter on the planet," said Bill Fraser, an ecologist with the Polar Oceans Research Group in Sheridan, Montana.

"The mid-winter temperatures are now around 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit [6 degrees Celsius] higher than they were 50 years ago."

If the trend continues, Fraser predicts that Adélie penguins will be locally extinct within five to ten years.

Global Mix Master

Adélies are the smallest penguin species, weighing in at roughly 8.5 to 12 pounds (4 to 5.5 kilograms).

Since Fraser began to study Antarctic penguins in 1974, he has seen the Adélie population in the western Antarctic Peninsula shrink by 80 percent.

Today there are 8,000 birds left from an original colony size of 40,000.

"They are the classic canaries in the coal mine, in that they are responding to changes that are occurring on an enormous scale," Fraser said.

"These are global scale changes; it's just not the [Antarctic] peninsula that's warming."

Doug Martinson is a physical oceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York.

He noted that the peninsula's especially rapid warming must be tied to factors unique to the region.

(Read "Antarctica's Atmosphere Warming Dramatically, Study Finds" [March 30, 2006].)

"The peninsula is undergoing warming that in the wintertime is almost 5.5 times the global average," Martinson said.

"[There's] got to be some other source of heat that's melting the glaciers and raising the air temperature, and the most obvious source is the ocean."

Water has a much greater capacity to carry heat than air. As the air in equatorial regions gets warmer, this heat makes its way down into the deep ocean.

Deep ocean currents then bring this warmer water toward the South Pole, where it gets "hijacked" by the Antarctic circumpolar current—the "global mix master," as Martinson calls it.

As this current glances off the Antarctic Peninsula, some of its warmer water flows up onto the continental shelf, mixes its way to the surface, and sends heat into the atmosphere.

"The deep-ocean circulation is bringing water to our area of the Antarctic Peninsula that—just a little ways below the water's surface—is four degrees Celsius [seven degrees Fahrenheit] warmer than freezing," Martinson said.

"It's a freight train of hot coals that goes steaming by this frigid area."

In recent decades Martinson has found that the sea ice has started melting much earlier and freezing over much later.

"The summer season with no sea ice is now 85 days longer than it used to be just since the '80s," he said.

"It almost doubles the length of summer down there as far as sea ice goes."

Not All Bad?

But it's not all bad news for the Adélies, said Fraser of the Polar Oceans Research Group.

As the Antarctic Peninsula heats up, southern parts of Antarctica have become more hospitable homes for the species.

Adélie populations in the far southern peninsula have tripled in previous decades, Fraser said.

And ice-intolerant penguin species, such as chinstrap and gentoo penguins, are moving into the warmer Antarctic habitats once occupied by the Adélies.

Since 1974 gentoos have increased in number by 7,500 percent and chinstraps by 2,700 percent.

"We joke that gentoos are going to take over the world," Fraser said.

However the danger remains that all parts of Antarctica could warm past the Adélies' ideal temperature range.

"Pound for pound, an Adélie penguin can deal with just about anything," Fraser said.

"To see them being affected so dramatically by [human-induced] climate change, it's particularly hard to bear."

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