Emperor penguins have been added to endangered species list and experts warn they ‘need urgent climate action’

Emperor penguins are facing an existential threat from the climate crisis and deserve additional protections under the law, the US federal government ruled this week.

The bird — the largest of all the penguin species — has been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, the country’s premier wildlife conservation law.

The primary concern is the melting of their sea ice homes around Antarctica as the planet heats up, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said, citing studies that forecast potentially drastic population declines in the coming decades.

This action will provide additional protections for the penguins and help galvanise conservation efforts.

“Climate change is having a profound impact on species around the world and addressing it is a priority for the Administration,” USFWS Director Martha Williams said in a statement. “The listing of the emperor penguin serves as an alarm bell but also a call to action.”

Emperor penguins are perhaps the most famous of the penguin family, having gained international notoriety from films like the documentary March of the Penguins and the animated feature Happy Feet.

UWFWS notes that while the emperor penguin population isn’t declining yet, it’s likely to drop at least 26 per cent by 2050 — or more, if future carbon emissions are higher. This will likely affect some populations, like those in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific, more than populations in the Ross and Weddell seas, the agency adds.

“This is a big win for these beloved, iconic penguins and all of us who want them to thrive,” Shaye Wolf from the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, which had sued to get USFWS to consider listing the species, said in a statement. “At the same time, this decision is a warning that emperor penguins need urgent climate action if they’re going to survive.”

Emperor penguins rely heavily on sea ice along the Antarctic coast, including breeding along the sea ice during winter. As the planet heats up, less and less sea ice may form, putting the future of the birds in serious jeopardy.

“Emperor penguins, like many species on Earth, face a very uncertain future, which is dependent on people working together to reduce carbon pollution,” Stephanie Jenouvrier, an ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said in the centre’s statement.

This decision to list the birds under the Endangered Species Act finalizes a rule first proposed last year. The new status could spur action and funding for conservation, and will require the US government to address any threats to the species via federal agencies, the statement adds.

A 2021 study co-authored by Dr Jenouvrier found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a rapid pace over the coming decades, emperor penguins could be pushed toward extinction by the end of the century.

Even under scenarios where carbon emissions decline somewhat, the penguins’ populations are likely to drop over the coming decades, the study added.

A separate study co-authored by Dr Jenouvrier in 2019 found that if the world’s countries were to meet the goals set out by the Paris Agreement and limit warming to around 1.5 – 2 degrees Celsius, emperor penguins could likely avoid total collapse this century.

The world is currently on track to reach about 2.7C of warming by the end of the century, according to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent analysis of global climate policy.