65% of Antarctic species and penguins could disappear as global temperature rises, says study

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It was only a matter of time before man-made climate change and pollution reached even the most isolated continent on the planet. As global temperatures rise, Antarctica’s pristine landscape is already changing, and new research shows that most of the region’s plant and animal species – including its iconic penguins – are in trouble.

The study published on Thursday in the journal PLOS Biology found that 65% of Antarctica’s native species, mainly emperor penguins, are likely to disappear by the end of the century if the world goes about its business as usual and doesn’t rein in the planet. – warming from fossil fuel emissions.

The study also showed that current conservation efforts in Antarctica are not working on the rapidly changing continent. The researchers concluded that implementing an extra layer of economic strategies, presented in the study, could save up to 84% of Antarctica’s vulnerable biodiversity.

“Antarctica is not really contributing to climate change; there aren’t a lot of people living there, so the biggest threat to the continent comes from outside the continent,” Jasmine Lee, lead author of the study, told CNN. “We really need global action on climate change, as well as some more local and regional conservation efforts, to give Antarctica’s species the best chance of surviving into the future.”

Antarctica’s geographic isolation has long shielded the continent from the growing impacts of the climate crisis and other environmental disasters plaguing the rest of the world, such as wildfires, floods and droughts. Scientists have already observed significant changes in its northern counterpart, the Arctic, which is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet.

But the impacts of climate change are just starting to show in Antarctica. Recent data, for example, suggest that Antarctic sea ice is falling faster now than it was decades ago.

Thursday’s study shows that disappearing sea ice threatens several seabird species, such as emperor penguins and Adelie penguins, which depend on ice from April to December to nest their young. If the ice melts earlier or freezes later in the season as a result of rising temperatures, penguins struggle to complete their reproductive cycle.

“These iconic species like Emperor Penguins and Adelie Penguins are at risk and it is very sad to think that Antarctica is one of the last great wilderness areas on the planet and that human impacts are being seen and felt there.” Lee said. “It’s incredibly sad to think that we could drive these types of species to extinction.”

Human presence and activity are also increasing in the region. The study shows that scientific expeditions and infrastructure are expanding, while the annual number of tourists has skyrocketed more than eightfold since the 1990s.

A separate study from earlier this year showed that increased human presence in the region is causing more snowmelt. Scientists have discovered black carbon – the dark, dusty pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels – settling in places where people spend a lot of time. Even the smallest amount of this pollutant can have a significant impact on melting.

Tourists taking pictures of a Barbijo penguin on Half Moon Island, Antarctica, in 2019.

While the threat to Antarctic species and its ecosystem is increasingly well documented, it is not as widely understood among policymakers, Lee said. And finding funds for conservation can be challenging.

But the study presents several measures that are really cost-effective, with an estimated cost of US$1.92 billion over the next 83 years, or about US$23 million per year – a fraction of the global economy.

These strategies include minimizing and managing human activity, transportation and new infrastructure, as well as protecting native species while controlling non-native species and diseases that enter the region.

It also includes a focus on foreign policy, such as achieving the broader international climate targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aim to reduce planet-warming emissions and prevent a dire rise in global temperatures.

Adelie penguins on sea ice in East Antarctica in 2010.

“The benefits of doing something about climate change are good for human health, livelihoods and also the economy,” Lee said. “The incentive exists, but it’s just a matter of finding that initial investment, and it just depends on priorities.”

Cassandra Brooks, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has done extensive research on marine animals in Antarctica, said the study is “timely and important” in drawing attention to how critically endangered Antarctic biodiversity is.

“This study builds on previous work that shows the urgency with which policymakers need to act on climate change if there is any chance of safeguarding Antarctica’s biodiversity,” Brooks, who was not involved in the study, told CNN. He “makes it clear that current conservation strategies are insufficient to do anything other than support biodiversity decline.”

The latest research comes days after negotiators at the UN biodiversity summit in Montreal reached a historic agreement to better protect the planet’s vital ecosystems, including a pledge to protect 30% of land and oceans by 2030.

With the climate crisis now the most pervasive threat to Antarctica’s biodiversity, Lee said influencing global policy is needed more than ever to save one of Earth’s vast, pristine biomes.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Lee said. “We are at this huge tipping point right now not just for Antarctica but globally when it comes to climate. We have an opportunity to stop it, and if we don’t do something now, the impacts will be much, much worse than they could be.”