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 the colonies of 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 level 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 is also likely to have a knock-on effect 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 widely regarded as a threshold level for unacceptable risks of dangerous climate change. Many recent climate models forecast likely temperatures rises in excess of this.
2°C is Too Much was launched at the IUCN World Conservation Congress taking place this week in Barcelona, Spain.
The only way to significantly reduce the risks of climate change in Antarctica, as well as globally, is to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
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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