Guest essay by Jim Steele,
Director emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University and author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism
Two recent press releases concerning the Emperor Penguin’s fate illustrate contrasting forces that will either advance or suppress trustworthy conservation science. The first study reminds me of Mark Twain’s quip, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” Embodying that truism is a paper by lead author Dr. Michelle LaRue who reports new advances in reading the Emperor Penguin’s fecal stains on Antarctic sea ice that are visible in satellite pictures. Two years ago the fecal stain method identified several large, hitherto unknown colonies and nearly doubled our estimate of the world’s Emperor Penguins.1,2 That didn’t mean climate change had necessarily increased penguin numbers, but a larger more robust population meant Emperor Penguins were far more resilient to any form of change.
LaRue’s new study advances the science by analyzing the shifting patterns of penguin poop, and her results are prompting some scientists to “unlearn” a key belief that has supported speculation of the Emperors imminent extinction. Believing Emperors are loyal to their breeding locations (philopatry), whenever researchers counted declining penguins at their study site, they assumed the missing penguins had died. However other studies had shown populations could suddenly double, and such observations challenged the notion of philopatry.10 The only reasonable explanation for unusual rapid population growth was that other penguins had immigrated from elsewhere, and loyalty to a breeding location was a misleading belief. LaRue’s study confirmed those suspicions by identifying the appearance of freshly stained ice in several new locations. LaRue rightfully said, “If we want to accurately conserve the species, we really need to know the basics. We’ve just learned something unexpected, and we should rethink how we interpret colony fluctuations.”….”That means we need to revisit how we interpret population changes and the causes of those changes.”
Of course several alarmist websites have spun this evidence of an ancient behavior into a new behavior forced by climate change disruptions.
Although mistaking unanticipated emigration for a local extinction has been the hallmark of several bad global warming studies, some researchers refuse to unlearn mistaken beliefs. In 2009 scientists argued that a missing herd of caribou that once numbered 276,000, had been extirpated by climate change. But the herd was later found in an unexpected location in 2011 just as native peoples had suggested. Likewise the co-author of the penguin extinction papers 3,8, Hal Caswell from the Woods Hole Oceanic Institute, mistakenly interpreted polar bear emigration as evidence of death due to climate change to advocate the bears’ imminent extinction as discussed here and here). He was similarly instrumental in modeling the extinction of the “March of the Penguins” Pt. Geologie colony. (Pt. Geologie Emperor Penguins are also known as the Terre Adelie colony or the Dumont d’Urville colony, named after the adjacent French research station known by the locals as DuDu.). Caswell and his co-authors are now doubling-down on their first prophesy of extinction for DuDu’s penguins to promote a more calamitous continent‑wide extinction scenario.
In a recent interview posted at ScienceDaily, the lead author Jenouvrier summarized their new extinction study saying, “If sea ice declines at the rates projected by the IPCC climate models, and continues to influence Emperor penguins as it did in the second half of the 20th century in Terre Adélie, at least two-thirds of the colonies are projected to have declined by greater than 50 percent from their current size by 2100.” “None of the colonies, even the southern-most locations in the Ross Sea, will provide a viable refuge by the end of 21st century.”
But Jenouvrier’s reference to sea ice’s influence on Emperor penguins during “second half of the 20th century in Terre Adélie” is a belief that should have been wisely abandoned. It was originally based on bizarre speculation in a 2001 paper Emperor Penguins And Climate Change,9 speculations that defied well-established biology and contradicted observations. The most obvious being Antarctic sea ice has not declined as al climate models predicted, but sea ice has now reached record extent. By attaching flipper bands and monitoring how many banded birds returned to DuDu researchers argued the penguins were less able to survive due to climate change. The paper’s authors, Barbraud et al, reported a 50% population drop from 1970 to 1981, and they blamed a prolonged abnormally warm period with reduced northward sea-ice extent. But any correlation with northward sea ice extent was absolutely meaningless.
Indeed the northward extent of sea ice had varied from 400 to 150 kilometers away from the colony, but the Emperor’s breeding success and survival depends solely on access to the open waters within the ice such as “polynya” and “leads.” That open water must be much, much closer. When open water was within 20 to 30 kilometers from the colony, penguins had easier access to food and experienced exceptionally high breeding success. When shifting winds caused open water to form 50 to 70 kilometers away, accessing food became more demanding, and their breeding success plummeted.7 Yet Barbraud et al absurdly argued that a reduction in sea ice extent, for unknown reasons, had lowered the penguin’s survival.9 It was catastrophic climate change speculation based on nothing more than a meaningless statistical coincidence.
Barbraud also argued that the warming of winter air temperatures from -17° to -11°C in 1981 contributed to the penguins demise, even though penguins would welcome any respite from deadly cold. When the penguins spend most of their lives swimming in +2°C water, there is no reason to believe the rise to -11°C had any deadly consequences. Again it was nothing more than a statistical coincidence. Yet the journal Nature gladly published their nebulous analyses and climate far, and then Jenouvrier, Caswell and several climate scientists were using that apocryphal study to predict more catastrophic extinctions.
Below is the graph featured by penguin expert Dr. David Ainley on his PenguinScience website showing a purported connection between the penguins’ decline and rising temperatures. His website argues, “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.”
The blue arrow in Figure A. suggesting a “steadily rising” temperatures, is a figment of Ainely’s imagination. The actual temperatures for the DuDu research station are seen in Figure B. Ainley and I had been involved in several pleasant and thoughtful email discussions about the decline of DuDu’s Emperors, when I became aware of his Fig. A. I emailed him and asked how he justified such a false representation. He apologized and promised to remove it saying, “My intent with the graph was to refer to the temperature trend, a period when temperature was increasing. Sorry about that.” I have always had great respect for Ainley’s work and from our discussion felt a kindred spirit and dedication to being good environmental stewards. But 2 years have passed and his bogus graph remains as of this writing. Perhaps it will be removed if enough people object to its the gross misrepresentation.
Despite satellite estimates that more than doubled the population of known Emperor Penguins, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed their ranking of Emperors from a species of Least Concern to a Near-Threatened species based on modeling studies blaming the decline of DuDu’s penguins on climate change as presented in Jenouvrier and Caswell’s study. Likewise Ainley’s paper Antarctic Penguin Response To Habitat Change As Earth’s Troposphere Reaches 2°C Above Preindustrial Levels10 had great influence. Ainley believed the DuDu colony had been unable to recover since 1980 because global warming had caused a thinning of the sea ice resulting in a premature loss of sea ice that was drowning chicks. Based on his faith in the models, he warned thinning se ice would get worse. However there was no evidence for such catastrophic events. So I first contacted Ainley to determine if his “drowning chicks” were based on observation or theoretical beliefs. Ainley confessed his claims were based on a sentence in Barbraud’s paper that stated, “Complete or extensive breeding failures in some years resulted from early break-out of the sea-ice holding up the colony, or from prolonged blizzards during the early chick-rearing period.” The early break-out of the sea-ice holding up the colony was merely a belief consistent with global warming hypotheses.
Mark Twain again provides insight to why bad science so easily goes viral having written, “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.” And apparently scientists suffer the same second‑hand folly. Not wanting to succumb to a similar mistake, I emailed Barbraud and asked for the dates during which he had observed an “early break-out of sea-ice holding up the colony”. As it turns out, I was not the only one having difficulty finding that evidence. Dr Barbraud replied, “We are currently doing analyses to investigate the relationships between meteorological factors and breeding success in this species, including dates of sea ice break out, which are relatively difficult to find for the moment!” So why did he ever make the claim of “premature breakouts” in the first place?
There is a much more parsimonious explanation for the DuDu penguins’ decline. Between 1967 and 1980 researchers from DuDu attached flipper bands to breeding penguins, and that is exactly when the penguins began to desert the colony as seen in Figure A. By the time the much-ballyhooed “warm spike” occurred in the winter of 1981, the colony had already declined by 50%.
Several studies have shown that tight flipper bands can increase penguin mortality because flippers can atrophy or swimming efficiency is reduced. Those observations have prompted researchers to argue for another “unlearning” writing, “our understanding of the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems based on flipper-band data should be reconsidered.” 15 However it is unlikely that atrophied flippers from tight bands can fully explain the 50% drop in the Emperor’s abundance. However, interrupting the Emperor’s pair-bonding and vital huddling behavior to attach flipper bands and count birds is a significant disruption that would encourage penguins to seek a more secluded breeding colony.
Placing a band on an Emperor Penguin is no easy task. Male Emperors must conserve energy in order to survive their 4 month winter fast, and tussles with researchers consumed their precious energy. Emperors must also huddle in order to conserve vital warmth (as seen below in the picture from Robertson 2014). But huddling was disrupted whenever researchers “drove” the penguins into files of 2 or 3 individuals in order to systematically read bands or more accurately count the population. “Droving” could also cause the males to drop their eggs that are so precariously balanced on their feet.
When DuDu’s flipper banding finally ended in 1980, coincidentally the Emperors’ “survival rate” immediately rebounded. Survival rates remained high for the next four years despite extreme shifts in weather and sea-ice extent. However, survival rates suddenly plummeted once again in 1985, despite an above-normal pack-ice extent.Coincidentally, that is when the French began building an airstrip at DuDu, and to that end they dynamited and joined three small islands.
I had argued with Ainley that the only parsimonious explanation for the decline in DuDu’s penguins was that researchers had created such disturbances to their breeding ground, that the Emperors chose to abandon the colony to join others far from such disruptions. Satellite studies such as LaRue’s now support that interpretation as 2 new colonies have been discovered and are the likely home for DuDu refugees.
Yet despite those obvious disruptions, and despite the growing and thickening sea ice, and despite the lack of any warming trend what so ever, the scientific literature is spammed and the public bombarded with more propaganda claiming climate change has put penguins in peril. A peril derived from how they imagined climate change had killed the DuDu penguins in the 1970s. Robert Bolton wrote, ““A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind” and catastrophic climate changes is tragically possessing too many minds. To repeat LaRue’s advice, if we want to accurately conserve the species, we really need to know the basics. And basically, changing concentrations of CO2 have done absolutely nothing to hurt the Emperor Penguins.
1.Woehler, E.J. (1993) The distribution and abundance of Antarctic and Subantarctic penguins. Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Cambridge.
2. Fretwell, P., et al.,, ( 2012) An Emperor Penguin Population Estimate: The First Global, Synoptic Survey of a Species from Space. PLoS ONE.
3. Jenouvrier, S., et al., (2009) Demographic models and IPCC climate projections predict the decline of an emperor penguin population. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806638106
4. Brahic, C., (2009) Melting ice could push penguins to extinction. NewScientist, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16487-melting-ice-could-push-penguins-to-extinction.html.
5. BBC New, (2009) Emperor penguins face extinction. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7851276.stm
6. Fraser, A., et al. (2012) East Antarctic Landfast Sea Ice Distribution and Variability, 2000‑08. Journal of Climate, vol. 25, p. 1137-1156.
7. Massom, R., et al. (2009) Fast ice distribution in Adelie land, east Antarctica: interannual variability and implications for Emperor penguins Aptenodytes forsteri. Marine Ecology Progress Series, vol. 374, p. 243-257.
8. Jenouvrier, S., M. Holland, J. Stroeve, M. Serreze, C. Barbraud, H. Wimerskirch and H. Caswell (2014), Climate change and continent-wide declines of the emperor penguin. Nature Climate Change, , doi: NCLIM-13101143-T
9. Barbraud, C., and Weimerskirch, H. (2001) Emperor penguins and climate change. Nature, vol. 411, p.183‑186.
10. Kato, A. (2004) Population changes of Adelie and emperor penguins along the Prince Olav Coast and on the Riiser-Larsen Peninsula. Polar Biosci., vol. 17, 117-122.
11. Ainley, D., et al., (2010) Antarctic penguin response to habitat change as Earth’s troposphere reaches 2°C above preindustrial levels. Ecological Monographs, vol. 80, p. 49–66
12. Dugger, K., et al., (2006) Effects of Flipper Bands on Foraging Behavior and Survival of Adélie Penguins (Pygoscelisadeliae). The Auk, vol. 123, p. 858-869
13. Robertson , G. et al (2014) Long-term trends in the population size and breeding success of emperor penguins at the Taylor Glacier colony, Antarctica. Polar Biol (2014) 37:251–259
14. Saraux, C., et al., (2011) Reliability of flipper-banded penguins as indicators of climate change. Nature, 469, 203‑206.
Adapted from the chapter “The Emperor Penguin Has No Clothes” in Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism