A study published on June 29 in the journal Scientific Reports warns that warming is no longer beneficial Adélie penguin population as it once was before. Researchers expect the population to drop up to 30 percent by 2060 and 60 percent of colonies by 2099, as global warming continues.

“It is only in recent decades that we know Adélie penguins population declines are associated with warming, which suggests that many regions of Antarctica have warmed too much and that further warming is no longer positive for the species,” explains the study’s lead author Megan Cimino of the University of Delaware.

Adélie penguin population is fine in other parts of Antarctic continent. However, those penguins that inhabit along the West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), which is warming at an alarming rate, are at highest risk.

Adélie penguin

Adélie penguins. Credit: University of Delaware

The researchers from the University of Delaware, Stony Brook University, and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service used satellite data from 1981 to 2010 and climate models to estimate the penguin population decline. They also assessed how the species’ population have changed over the years.

The findings showed that environmental factors affected by climate change, especially warming sea surface temperature (or SST), threaten the Adélie penguins. This change can reduce the suitability of chick-rearing habitats.

Those penguins in the southern WAP, associated islands and northern WAP regions will be the most affected by the warming SST.  The warming is happening at a higher rate in these areas compared to other regions of the continent.

Nevertheless, it is not too late to save the penguins. The research team recommends utilizing some refugia, also known as areas largely unaffected by climate change.

“The Cape Adare region of the Ross Sea is home to the earliest known penguin occupation and has the largest known Adélie penguin rookery in the world,” adds Cimino. “Though the climate there is expected to warm a bit, it looks like it could be refugia in the future, and if you look back over geologic time it was likely a refuge in the past.”

According to Cimino, the study can also have implications for other animals that live in the same places as the penguins.