Emperor penguins face extinction unless greenhouse gas emissions reduced

Emperor penguins will be all but wiped out by the end of the century unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

The finding is part of a new report by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which urges Antarctic Treaty parties to commit to action on climate change,to avoid more milestones of irreversible change in Antarctica - which impacts the whole planet.

The southernmost continent is the last great wilderness, but its isolation is no protection against the impact of humankind.

"Antarctica is not escaping climate change at all. It's warming, it's melting, it's contributing to sea-level rise," report co-author Tim Naish said.

Changes in Antarctica will be felt worldwide. Melting ice sheets will contribute to putting almost a billion at risk from coastal flooding.

The wildlife there is accustomed to extreme conditions, but it's no match for the unprecedented increases in surface temperatures, wind speeds, and ocean acidity.

"Extreme heatwaves as well, which are new for Antarctica and it's affecting the biology. The life that lives on land and the life that lives in the Southern Ocean," Naish said.

On the Antarctic Peninsula, climate change is causing the populations of Adélie and chinstrap penguins to decrease, while numbers of gentoo penguins are going up.

Emperor penguins have been declining for a decade, and now, scientists predict they'll mostly die out if nothing is done about greenhouse gas emissions.

"In the summertime, the chicks decide to lose their feathers and get their swimming feathers right when the ice is starting to melt away, so if that ice starts to melt too soon, that's pretty bad news for the emperor penguin chicks," said conservation biologist Michelle LaRue.

Species near the equator can head south if their waters get too warm. But leaving home isn't an option for Antarctic animals, and as we learned from the movie Happy Feet, the emperor penguin, which arrived on Kapiti Coast in 2011, doesn't do well when they do leave.

"If we stopped emitting right now, the sea ice is still going to change for the next ten years, so that lag effect, we don't have time, we need to act as swiftly as possible," LaRue said.

It's been 32 years since the first report warning about the global consequences of climate change, but scientists hope this latest report will sharpen the message to all nations that our human future - and that of those we share this planet with - relies on cutting emissions across all sectors.

And just as urgently is the need to invest more in science to better understand the changes in Antarctica and how soon we need to prepare for their effects.