Emperor penguin populations have been increasing in recent years, yet worst-case climate modellers predict their extinction by 2100. It is time to stop applying the implausible RCP8.5 scare-scenarios.
A new study of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes fosteri) populations in 2019 found that it had grown by up to 10% since 2009. The largest of all penguin species in the Antarctic, emperors now number as many as 282,150 breeding pairs (up from about 256,500) out of a total population of over 600,000 birds. This growth occurred despite a loss of thousands of chicks in 2016 when one of the Antarctic ice shelves they were huddled upon collapsed. The latest IUCN Red List assessment, completed in 2018, classified emperors as ‘Near Threatened’, a small step up from ‘Least Concern’. In their justification for this classification, the authors concluded:
This species is listed as Near Threatened because it is projected to undergo a moderately rapid population decline over the next three generations owing to the projected effects of climate change. However, it should be noted that there is considerable uncertainty over future climatic changes and how these will impact the species.
Oddly, however, other biologists studying this species are currently petitioning the IUCN to upgrade emperor penguins to ‘Vulnerable’ (a classification equivalent to ‘Threatened’ in the US system) based on survival models that predict the species could be close to extinction by 2100 using the RCP8.5 ‘worse case’ climate change scenario that polar bear biologists have so far found irresistible. As polar bear biologists have also done, they insist that if we reduce CO2 emissions via global political policy, the penguins will be saved.
The media, of course, focus on the model predictions of near extinction by 2100 that support a political response to human-caused climate change, despite the fact that both polar bears and emperor penguins are currently doing very well under declining sea ice conditions at both poles. They also ignore the valid criticisms of the RCP8.5 scenario made by many scientists, including Zeke Hausfather and Glen Peters in a Nature paper earlier this year, who insist that the use of these ‘worse case’ factors in models create quite implausible outcomes.
In a scathing commentary on recent model projections of future emperor penguin populations zoologist Susan Crockford concluded:
I’d suggest that using far-fetched ‘worse case’ scenario predictions to propose an unlikely but scary-sounding future catastrophe isn’t likely to work any better for emperor penguins than it has done for polar bears, especially when the animals keep thriving.”