Satellite images made with a high resolution camera from space have located some as yet unknown colonies of Emperor penguins by detecting the vast reddish-brown poo stains on the ice (scientific word: guano). This, of course, is good news for conservationists. They found 11 new colonies which represents an increase of about 20% in the total number of Emperor penguin sites in the Antarctica. The total now stands at 61.
The new colonies are quite small we are told and they increase the total population of Emperor penguins on the planet to half a billion. The majority of the new colonies are at the periphery of the normal locations of the species. And as such they are the most vulnerable to climate change.
Phil Thrathan of the British Antarctic Survey said that although it is good news that they have found these new colonies, their computer model projections indicate that the Emperor penguins at these sites are like “canaries in the coal mine”. What he means is that the effects of climate change on the Antarctica ice and therefore on the survivability of these penguins will be felt by those at the extremities of their normal locations first.
The good news, therefore, is that the scientists have found some more Emperor penguins to swell the numbers slightly. The bad news is the usual news, if we are honest. Global warming is shrinking Antarctica. The experts estimate that at the end of the century all penguin colonies will have shrunk. The question is by how much. They believe that the majority will shrink by 90%. The ice will decrease by 48%. The breeding habitat for the most endangered colonies in the north of the range will be lost, they believe.
Even under the best projections and with a global temperature increase of 1.5°C the penguin population will fall by at least 30%. Several colonies are up to 180 km offshore on sea ice which is grounded in shallow water. This is a new finding.
The scientific study is published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation. And I’m grateful to The Times newspaper (hardcopy) for reporting this story.