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Consequences of climate change pose dire threat to Arctic wildlife

Posted at 12:56 PM, Dec 01, 2021

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Nearly every nation has fallen short in its efforts to cut global emissions. And while world leaders are making new commitments to reduce carbon emissions, scientists say wildlife is already facing the consequences of climate change.

"From the perspective of people, the trajectory of effects of climate change is kind of more of a long-term thing, whereas, for wildlife, we're in the middle of an extinction event right now," said Ann Bowles, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute.

Specializing in bioacoustics, Bowles studies how animals communicate, as well as the impacts of human-made noise on different species.

Bowles began studying emperor penguins in the 1980s at SeaWorld San Diego, the first successful emperor penguin breeding facility outside of Antarctica. The research facility was asked by the National Science Foundation to establish the colony in hopes of learning more about the species.

"Studying animals here so we can help animals in the wild, that's basically the mission of Hubbs," said Dr. Bowles.

Largest of all living penguin species, the emperor penguin has a black head, chin, and throat, with broad yellow patches on each side of the head. They're also known as the Olympic divers of the bird world, diving deeper than any other bird.

But increasingly under siege from climate change, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced a proposal to list the emperor penguin as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If the proposal is finalized, the species will join a small group of animals protected explicitly from climate change.

"Because we can see the writing on the wall," said Dr. Bowles.

Emperor penguins rely on a delicate balance of sea ice for breeding and survival. Scientists estimate emperor penguins will be nearly extinct by the end of the century at the current rate of disappearing sea ice.

"There's no solution for having your prey base disappear on you, or your habitat disappears on you," said Bowles. "It's really hard to envision the scale of the kind of starvation, the disease that follows."

"Animals in the arctic, all over, whether they're seals or walruses or beluga whales, they're all being impacted by this global climate change," said Denise Higginbotham, a senior animal care specialist at SeaWorld San Diego.

Walruses use the ice pack for giving birth, resting and traveling. Higginbotham says with the loss of ice, many are coming up onshore and competing for food in the same area, or traveling further to find food.

And as the melting ice opens up new shipping routes, Bowles says human-made noise and traffic pollution also pose a threat to wildlife.

"I think one thing is to start taking proactive steps to actually address the climate issue. Another is to develop the political will to take steps that are needed to protect animal habitat," said Bowles. "If heavy shipping coming through the area is starting to have an impact, then restrict it, slow it, whatever you have to do in order to keep the habitat in a state where they can use it."

While emperor penguins are heading towards a desperate milestone, Bowles is encouraged by the shifts she's seeing in humankind.

"For me, the most hopeful thing is to see all the young people stepping up to the plate and saying, no, we see this as being acute, immediate and important," said Bowles. "It's time to change how we do things."