With a powerful El Niño on the way, experts are warning that penguins may be its biggest victims. In 1997, during the last El Niño event, penguin populations fell by a third.
A group of researchers have discovered that just a 1-degree change in temperature can be the difference between life and death for a penguin.
Using satellite transmitters, scientists tracked a group of 15 breeding penguins from the king penguin colony on the Crozet Islands from 1992 to 2010.
They learned that during the summer, penguins swim out from the islands to search for food at the Antarctic polar front, but during extreme climate changes the front can shift by up to 130 kilometres.
“During a climatically-extreme year, a strong southward shift of the polar front produced a doubling of the mean distance that penguins travelled on foraging trips, coinciding with a 34 percent decline in the archipelago’s breeding population the following year,” say the researchers.
“Future climatic scenarios predict that the polar front may shift even further southwards, posing a potentially serious threat to the persistence of diving predators in the region.”
A polar front is where warm tropical air meets cold polar air, resulting in conditions suitable for high concentrations of penguin food sources like fish and zooplankton.
With global warming also expected to increase temperatures even further, it’s going to be a testing few years for one of the world’s most loved animals.