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Future greenhouse gas emissions will determine fate of emperor penguins

Emissions cuts would minimize the loss of Antarctic sea ice

Nov 7, 2019 - by Staff

If society continues on its present path of greenhouse gas emissions, populations of emperor penguins would likely be devastated by the end of the century because of Antarctic sea ice loss. But new research shows that reduced emissions under the Paris Agreement on climate change would minimize the ice loss, enabling the penguins to survive.

The international research team, led by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with co-authors from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and other organizations, used advanced computer models to simulate climate effects on sea ice and penguin demographics.

Emperor penguins are highly dependent on Antarctic sea ice, which they use for breeding colonies. If society continues on a business-as-usual approach for emissions of greenhouse gases, the loss of sea ice would be so extensive that 80 percent of penguin colonies would be virtually extinct by 2100, the study shows. In contrast, if society were to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and limit future warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius (2.7-3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the population decline would be less than 50 percent and the colonies would largely stabilize later this century.

"This research highlights the extent to which society's ability to limit future warming is going to determine the fate of sensitive ecosystems like the Antarctic," said NCAR scientist Marika Holland, a co-author of the study.

The study appeared this week in Global Change Biology. For more about the research, see the Woods Hole news release.

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