As Antarctic ice continues to melt at an alarming rate, scientists warn that the well-being of penguins native to the region is becoming increasingly threatened.
According to a new report by NBC News' Kerry Sanders, the welfare and existence of at least half of the world's 18 penguin species will be negatively impacted if the warming of the Antarctic Peninsula persists. Experts say that a big part of the problem is related to food: Less ice means less krill, a cornerstone of the Antarctic ecosystem and a mainstay of a penguin's diet.
"When you look at all penguins they are largely in trouble," said Oxford University penguinologist Tom Hart, who spends a few months every year observing penguin colonies along the Antarctic coast, per NBC. "We're so concerned because we're seeing massive changes to their populations. They’re probably not going to go extinct anytime soon, but the environment is changing very fast."
Emperor penguins, Adelies and chinstraps, for example, live entirely in the Antarctic. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), both Emperor penguins and Adelies are considered "near threatened." Even populations of chinstraps, not usually considered a vulnerable species, have "declined up to 50 percent in the last 30 years," Hart told NBC. "The general public doesn't realize the penguins are declining so fast."
Visit NBC News for a look at its full report on climate change's impact on penguin species.
In an interview with the BBC in 2009, Professor Hart warned that Emperor penguins could face near-extinction by the end of the century if global warming continued at its current rate.
Then, in 2011, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that chinstrap and Adelie penguin populations had been shrinking since 1986 due to a decline in the availability of krill.
"For penguins and other species, krill is the linchpin in the food web," Dr Wayne Trivelpiece, the study's lead author and a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) said in a statement released by the Lenfest Ocean Program, which partially funded the 2011 study.
"Regardless of their environmental preferences, we see a connection between climate change and penguin populations through the loss of habitat for their main food source," Trivelpiece's statement continued. "As warming continues, the loss of krill will have a profound effect throughout the Antarctic ecosystem."
Since krill feed on phytoplankton that thrive under ice cover, warming waters and disappearing sea ice have contributed to shrinking Antarctic krill populations. According to Al-Jazeera, other recent studies have shown that krill in the Southern Ocean may have declined by about 80 percent since the 1970s.
"Simply put, without krill, most of the life forms in the Antarctic would disappear," National Geographic says of the tiny, shrimp-like crustacean.
To learn more about penguins in Antarctica and how you can help them, go to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition's page on penguins here.