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Emperor penguins could be wiped out by global warming, scientists warn

At the current rate of warming, the fate of the beloved seabirds could be sealed by 2100.

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Emperor penguins are the largest species of penguin. 

Stephanie Jenouvrier, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Here's one more dire indication that climate change is a monster: Charismatic emperor penguins could be headed irreparably toward extinction within a century if our current rate of global warming keeps up.

A team led by scientists with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts released a study on the possible fate of the penguins in the journal Global Change Biology on Thursday.

WHOI biologist Stephanie Jenouvrier holds a five-month-old Emperor penguin before tagging it.

Stephanie Jenouvri/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

"If global climate keeps warming at the current rate, we expect emperor penguins in Antarctica to experience an 86 percent decline by the year 2100," said WHOI ecologist Stephanie Jenouvrier, lead author on the paper. "At that point, it is very unlikely for them to bounce back."  

The penguins live, breed, feed and molt on sea ice in Antarctica. That ice is disappearing as the planet heats up. The researchers used computer models to look ahead at the decline in sea ice and to see how penguin populations might change in response. 

The team ran the numbers for several possible futures. The Paris Climate Accord, which the US is in the process of withdrawing from, is an international agreement that aims to hold global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. If we can pull that off, then emperor penguins would face population declines, but not almost-certain extinction by 2100. 

If the globe continues to warm at its current pace, then the personable penguins are in serious trouble. "Under business‐as‐usual greenhouse gas emissions, we show that 80% of the colonies are projected to be quasiextinct by 2100," the paper said.

The penguin study comes just days after more than 11,000 scientists issued a dire climate emergency warning. It's not looking good for any of us, humans or seabirds.