From the “I told you Angry Penguins were the new icon” department
The world’s polar regions are warming up faster than the global average, but the western edge of the Antarctic Peninsula is especially steamy. Over the past 50 years, winter temperatures have shot up by an almost unbelievable 6°C—more than five times the global average, according to a paper just published in Science.
The new study, part of a special report on oceans and climate, focuses on the Antarctic Peninsula not only because it represents an extreme, but because it gives scientists a chance to look at a marine ecosystem under rapid climate change (the other polar hotspots, in Siberia and western North America, are well inland).
Rapidly rising temperatures—mostly driven by warmer ocean currents–have transformed the West Antarctic Peninsula’s landscape. The massive ice shelves that sit just offshore at the peninsula’s southern end have begun collapsing en masse . Overall, say the authors, 87% of the region’s glaciers are in retreat, the ice season has shortened by 90 days and, they write ominously, “These changes are accelerating.”
That being the case, it’s not surprising that the creatures who live here are under enormous stress. Adélie penguin populations, which need ice and cold weather to survive, have plummeted by 90% in the northern part of the peninsula over the past three decades, says lead author Oscar Schofield, a marine scientist at Rutgers University, while chinstrap penguins, which prefer more temperate climates, have increased. “The penguin populations near Palmer Station [the largest U.S. base in that part of the continent] have flipflopped,” says Schofield. “The area will probably be completely devoid of Adélies in five or ten years.”