Will our favorite flightless bird waddle off to the sunset?
Some 70% percent of all the king penguins on Earth — around 1.1 million breeding pairs — will be forced to relocate or die trying by the end of the century if global warming continues at its present rate, according to a new study published online Monday
The king penguin is one of several threatened species of penguins in Antarctica. Previous studies have found that other species — such as the emperor, Adelie and chinstrap — are also in danger of extinction or severe population loss due to climate change.
The reason the king penguins are in trouble is that as the oceans warm, their favorite food — fish — will move south to cooler waters, away from where the penguins live.
King penguins, the second-largest penguin species, primarily live on small islands around the main Antarctic continent.
When the fish move away from those islands, parent penguins are then forced to swim farther to find food, while their kids wait, fasting longer and longer on the shore.
This study predicts that, for most colonies, the length of the parents’ trips to get food will soon be so long that their children will starve, leading to massive King penguin crashes in population size.
Most problematic is that the penguins can't move with the fish. "The main issue is that there are only a handful of islands in the Southern Ocean and not all of them are suitable to sustain large breeding colonies," said study co-author Robin Cristofari, also of the University of Strasbourg.
Due to the burning of fossil fuels such as gas, oil and coal, the Earth's atmosphere and its oceans are warming to levels that scientists say cannot be explained by natural variability.
Now, for the first time in the history of penguins, these human activities are leading to rapid and possibly irreversible changes in the Earth system.
In fact, the part of Antarctica where the king penguins live is "one of the most rapidly changing ecosystems of our planet," according to the study.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Climate Change.