The effect of Global Warming on penguins


PenguinScience | Climate Change

What is happening to the Penguins?

Of all the penguins in the  world, two kinds need to live in the areas of Antarctica where ice forms on the ocean: the small Adélie Penguin (10 pounds) and  the large Emperor Penguin (50 pounds). The lives of these penguins are being  altered by changing climate.

On land, Adélies (left) are quick  and can jump from rock to rock. They build nests out of small rocks. In  contrast, the Emperor (right) is large, slow and clumsy. Instead of building a  nest on land, one large egg is nestled in a pouch on their lower stomach. Thus,  Emperors raise chicks on flat frozen ocean instead of needing to find land.

  Most of Antarctica’s coast is too steep or icy even for  Adélie penguins. They need gently sloping beaches. Emperor Penguins don’t climb  at all, so they form colonies on the frozen sea in places where the ice will  not disappear until after their chicks are grown. Antarctica is larger than the  US and Mexico combined, but the total amount of nesting space available for ALL  the penguins could fit within the city limits of New York, Los Angeles or London.

In winter, Antarctic seas freeze  into a solid sheet, which in summer breaks into pieces called ice floes.  Penguins often hang out on ice floes when they’re not swimming. In winter the  Adelies must move to where there is light and open water between the ice floes in  order to feed.


Penguins swim in the ocean, looking  under the ice to find their food.


Emperor  Penguins and climate change We know only a little about Emperor  Penguins because they lay their eggs during the dark of winter. It is very  difficult for people to see Emperor Penguins at this time, except with a very  strong flashlight. Emperors live so far south that the sun never rises for 3  months.   Here, through the window of a  helicopter, you see clumps of Emperor penguins that are nesting on the frozen  sea. The icebergs are resting on the ocean bottom and lock the sea ice in place  long enough (7 months) for the chicks to grow up.

  Emperors do not build nests but  carry their egg and small chick in a large pouch near their feet. After a few  weeks, chicks can stand on the ice but are protected by their parents from the  cold. If the ice disappears before the chicks can take care of themselves they  will be swept into the sea.


The Emperor Penguin colony where the  movie “March of the Penguins” was filmed has been shrinking. The colony ( Pt  Géologie) is located in northern Antarctica where temperatures have been steadily rising. In recent years, the ice  has become too thin, and so it blows away before the chicks are grown.  Therefore, fewer and fewer young penguins have been returning to live in this  colony. Most Emperor Penguin colonies occur much farther south where  temperatures are still very cold. This could change, however, if global warming  trends continue.


Adélie  Penguins and climate  change     In some areas of Antarctica, warming temperatures are creating changes that  benefit Adélie Penguins. In southern portions  of the Antarctic coast, areas of once impenetrable pack ice have loosened  allowing penguins easier access to open water. Up north, however, along the warmer  Antarctic Peninsula, sea ice habitat that Adélies depend on is  disappearing.

  This colony (CapeCrozier) is located at the  edge of a vast sheet of land ice, sometimes 2 miles thick, which covers Antarctica. Part of this sheet, called the Ross Ice Shelf, floats on the sea  just like ice floats in a glass of water. During the last ice age, when the  northern and southern parts of Earth (the Polar Regions and more) were covered thickly by  ice (glaciers), Adélie Penguins nested only in northern areas, as the Ice Sheet  blocked penguins from nesting in many places where they nest today.

  Here, the bay has become completely  covered by sea ice. This colony will disappear if the ice does not break into  floes, forcing the penguins to walk too far to find open water and food. As the  Antarctic warms, however, the sea ice in these areas will become less extensive  and the penguins will do well.


In Antarctica’s far south (RossIsland), where it is still cold,  colonies have been growing. With warming temperatures and stronger winds,  breaking apart the sea ice, penguins have easier access. They are moving here  because they can now swim rather than walk to find food, and bring more back to  their chicks.

In Antarctica’s far north (AnversIsland) air temperatures  have become VERY warm and ice no longer forms on the sea. The penguins do not  live well under such conditions, and each year fewer of them nest here. They  are moving south to where it is colder.

  Due to global climate change, sea  ice off the coast of some parts of Antarctica (orange, red) has been disappearing (and so have the penguins). In  other parts (blue) sea ice is becoming more open and increasing (and so have  the penguins).


Eventually, as temperatures continue  to warm, Adélie Penguin colonies will disappear, leaving only their nest stones  behind.


  As countries continue to rely on  fossil fuels, the Earth will most certainly continue to warm. Places like Antarctica will change the fastest, as more  and more sea ice disappears. For a while Adélie and Emperor penguins find new  locations to make colonies.. But, as they relocate farther and farther south  they will eventually run out of room. By the time this happens sea level will  also have risen and eliminated even more of their habitat. New York, London, Amsterdam, Calcutta and many other human  cities will be under water, too.

What can I do?     What we do in our daily  lives affects what happens to the penguins as well as other animals and plants  that live on Earth. Every time we use electricity produced by fossil fuels or  drive our car we increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Carbon  dioxide is one of the gases in our atmosphere that absorbs heat, contributing  to global warming and climate change. Here are some websites to explore for  ideas on how you can help reduce the carbon dioxide you produce.

NOTE: While Earth’s warming temperatures are causing  penguins to change their lives, so is the removal of fish and whales from the  ocean. We have not included that part of the story here. We thank the Antarctic  programs (and their people) from France, New    Zealand and the USA for some of  the information in this presentation.

One thought on “The effect of Global Warming on penguins

  1. Can you please tell me who produced those graphs, I’ve seen them a few places, including a number of climate science denying sites, but no one shares their provenance. Can you help?

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