Half to three-quarters of major Antarctic penguin colonies face decline or disappearance if global temperatures are allowed to climb by more than 2°C.
A new WWF report – 2°C is Too Much – shows that 50 per cent of the iconic emperor penguins and 75 per cent of the Adélie penguins are under threat.
Climate change models forecast that a 2°C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels
could be a reality in less than 40 years, producing a strong reduction in the sea ice cover of the Southern Ocean which is an essential nesting and feeding ground for Emperor and Adélie penguins.
A reduction in the sea ice will also have knock-on effects on the abundance of krill, which is a vital food source for penguins.
Juan Casavelos, WWF Antarctica Climate Change Coordinator said: “Penguins are very well adapted to living in the cold and extreme conditions of Antarctica, so the continued increase in global temperature and resulting loss of feeding areas and nesting zones for their chicks has already led to notable reductions in their populations.
“If temperatures increase by another two degrees these icons of the Antarctic will be seriously threatened.”
A rise in global average temperatures of 2°C is regarded as a threshold level for unacceptable risks of catastrophic climate change. Many recent climate models forecast likely temperatures rises in excess of this.
Risks to penguins were underlined this week, when hundreds of penguins were washed up on the Brazilian coast, thought to have been carried north on warmer ocean currents.
Environmentalists say it is not known why the penguins became stranded so far north, but suggest they could have been carried beyond their usual range by a flow of warm water.
The penguins were airlifted home, using a huge airforce cargo plane. Almost 400 that had strayed on to beaches, including Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, were saved.
Onlookers cheered as the young Magellanic penguins were set free on a beach in southern Brazil and scampered into the ocean.
Experts hope a small group of older penguins released along with the young ones will help to guide them south to Patagonia.
The stranded birds were among nearly 1,000 penguins that have washed up on Brazil's north-eastern coast in recent months. The others have either died or were not healthy enough to send back.
While the global average temperature rise currently sits at 0.74 degrees, temperatures are rising much more rapidly at the poles. Temperature measurement in Antarctica has only been conducted with some precision for about 50 years, with one station showing a rise of 2.5 °C in that time, indicating that Antarctic temperatures may be rising at four times the global rate.
Rapid emissions reduction is the key to significantly reduce the impacts of climate change in Antarctica.
WWF is calling for all nations to work together to agree on a new global deal that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol and tackle climate change beyond 2012.
This should include an obligation on developed countries to cut 25-40 per cent of their emissions by 2020 and 80-90 per cent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.
WWF also proposes the establishment of a network of marine protected areas to reduce pressure on the species, and the implementation of precautionary management measures that ensure the future of the krill and finfish fisheries and all Southern Ocean species – including penguins – that are dependant on them.
Juan Casavelos said: “The predicted threat to Emperor and Adélie penguin populations is a clear incentive for the world to agree on a set of measures to reduce global emissions.
“It is imperative that the international community analyses all possible ways to limit climate change and improve the resilience of the penguin population.”
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