Why Antarctica’s emperor penguins could be extinct by 2100


Greater conservation efforts are needed to protect Antarctic ecosystems, and populations of 97 percent of terrestrial Antarctic species could decline by 2100 unless we change our ways, our new study finds.

Research published today found it would cost just US$23 million a year to implement ten key strategies to reduce threats to Antarctica’s biodiversity.

This relatively small sum would benefit 84% of the world’s bird, mammal and plant groups.

We have identified climate change as the greatest threat to unique Antarctic plant and animal species. Limiting global warming is the most effective way to secure their future. Threats to Antarctic Biodiversity Antarctic land species have adapted to survive on Earth’s coldest, windiest, highest and driest continent.

The species includes both flowering plants, hardy mosses and lichens, numerous microbes, hardy invertebrates and hundreds of thousands of breeding seabirds, including emperor and Adélie penguins.

Antarctica also provides priceless services to the planet and to humanity. It helps regulate the global climate by driving atmospheric circulation and ocean currents and absorbing heat and carbon dioxide. Antarctica also drives weather patterns in Australia.

Some people think of Antarctica as a safe and protected wilderness. But the continent’s plants and animals still face many threats.

Chief among them is climate change. As global warming worsens, ice-free areas of Antarctica are predicted to expand, rapidly changing the habitat available to wildlife. And as extreme weather events, such as heat waves, become more frequent, Antarctic plants and animals are expected to suffer.

In addition, scientists and tourists who visit the frozen continent every year can damage the environment, for example by pollution and by disturbing the soil or plants. And the combination of more human visitors and milder temperatures in Antarctica also creates conditions for invasive species to thrive.

So how will these threats affect Antarctic species? And what conservation strategies can be used to mitigate them? Our research aimed to find answers.

What we found

Our study worked with 29 experts in Antarctic biodiversity, conservation, logistics, tourism and policy. Experts have assessed how the Antarctic species will respond to future threats.

In a worst-case scenario, populations of 97% of land-breeding species and breeding seabirds in Antarctica could decline between now and 2100 if current conservation efforts continue on the same trajectory.

At best, the populations of 37% of the species would decline. The most likely scenario is a decline of 65% of the continent’s flora and fauna by the year 2100.

The emperor penguin relies on the ice to breed, and is the most vulnerable of the Antarctic species. In a worst-case scenario, the emperor penguin is at risk of extinction by 2100, the only species in our study facing this fate.

Climate change is likely to wreak havoc on other Antarctic specialists, such as the nematode worm Scottnema lindsayae. The species lives in very dry soils, and is threatened by warming and melting ice that increases soil moisture.

Climate change will not lead to the decline of all Antarctic species; in fact, some may be beneficial at first. These include the two Antarctic plants, some mosses and the penguin.

These species may increase in population and become more widespread if there is more liquid water (as opposed to ice), more ice-free land, and warmer temperatures.

So what to do?

Clearly, current conservation efforts are insufficient to preserve Antarctic species in a changing world.

The experts we have worked with have identified ten management strategies to mitigate threats to terrestrial species on the continent.

Not surprisingly, mitigating climate change (listed as an ‘influence foreign policy’ strategy) would provide the greatest benefit. Limiting climate change to more than 2 degrees Celsius would benefit 68% of land species and breeding seabirds.

The next two most beneficial strategies were “native species and disease management” and “species management and protection”. These strategies include measures such as providing special protection to species and increasing biosecurity to prevent the introduction of non-special species.

How much would it all cost?

The United Nations COP15 nature summit concluded this week in Canada. Funding for conservation projects was high on the agenda.

In Antarctica, at least, this conservation is surprisingly cheap. Our research found that implementing all strategies together would cost US$23 billion per year until 2100 (or about US$2 trillion in total).

By comparison, the cost of restoring Australia’s threatened species is estimated to be over US$1.2 billion per year (although this is much more than is actually spent).

However, for the “influence on foreign policy” strategy (relating to climate change mitigation) we only included the cost of advocating for policy change. We have not included the global cost of reducing carbon emissions, nor have we compared the much higher economic costs of inaction.

As Antarctica faces increasing pressure from climate change and human activities, a combination of regional and global conservation efforts is needed. Spending $23 billion a year to preserve Antarctic biodiversity and ecosystems is an absolute bargain.

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