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Majestic emperor penguins threatened by climate change

Project Earth: Emperor penguins threatened by climate change
Project Earth: Emperor penguins threatened by climate change 02:53

Emperor penguins are not simply majestic. These birds are tough creatures who manage to survive in some of the harshest weather conditions imaginable.  

The penguins breed and live on frozen sea ice in the Antarctic. But the Antarctic Sea ice is disappearing due to a warming planet and the melting sea ice threatens their very existence.

"They show up at the breeding season and the ice isn't there, so they have nowhere to breed," explained Dr. Birgitte McDonald. 

Dr. McDonald is a physiological and behavioral ecologist at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, which is funded and administered by San Jose State University. 

Earlier this year, McDonald and her team headed to Antarctica to study the penguins after their molt and through their early reproductive cycle. As they lose their feathers and become the most vulnerable to hypothermia and death, the emperor penguins must select the ice floes that will remain intact. 

But that isn't happening.

An analysis by Cambridge scientists made a deeply disturbing discovery.  According to an article in Science News, "Peter Fretwell noticed that ice in one area was melting especially early in the year." That puts chicks at extreme risk.

Because of the receding sea ice, thousands of emperor penguins in the Western Antarctica lost their chicks.

"Emperor penguins -- their survival, their ability to reproduce -- is 100% tied to having appropriate sea ice," said McDonald.

This species needs a stable amount of sea ice to survive. And because of the erratic consequences of climate change, the Antarctic has fluctuated between record low and unusually high levels of ice.

"If you have too much ice, that can actually be bad for emperor penguins, because then they have to walk further over the ice to get to the water to forage," noted the Moss Landing scientist. 

Now that sea ice levels are fluctuating erratically, one study found that of the roughly 10,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins in a few colonies, only about 850 chicks survived. 

As the climate continues to warm, scientists fear the worst. McDonald showed CBS News Bay Area some modeling over a map of the Antarctic, peppered with red dots on its entire perimeter.

"The red dots indicate where 90% of the emperor penguin colonies will be extinct in about 80 years if we don't change our behavior," warned McDonald. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, human activities are responsible for almost all the increase in greenhouse gas emissions over the last 150 years. The largest source is the burning of fossil fuels.

"We really need to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. The more people can reduce their emissions, the better," advised McDonald. 

Some simple steps that anyone can take to reduce their emissions are available online

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