Steve Palumbi, Stanford University
Climate change affects everything. All the organisms that live in the ocean are used to being bathed in it, are used to its temperature, are used to where the ocean currents flow and all those things change with global climate change. The way whales for example move back and forth. Where they feed, where they breed is set in their migratory brains but how are they going to figure out where to move when the climate changes.
What about the salmon? How are they going to figure out where the streams have gone when the glaciers that feed them are gone?
There is a whole set of thousands of species that depend upon the ebb and flow of the seasons, the ebb and flow of the currents in order to set the scales of their lives and all of those are going to change and very quickly with global climate change.
Covered with an endless blanket of snow ice, the Antarctic is one of the most forbidding places on the planet. Yet this seemingly sterile polar desert is teeming with life. No other animal symbolizes the Antarctic like the Emperor penguin. Celebrated in blockbuster movies and on television, they have become media stars, media stars with major endorsements.
But what their fans too often overlook is that Emperor penguins are more than just cuddly animals we see on the screen. They are the only birds hardy enough to brave the extremes of Antarctica, winter and summer.
To learn more about penguins, marine scientists have set-up research stations not far from Emperor nesting sites. Their mission is to study how these penguins adapt to harsh conditions. Gerry Kooyman, a researcher with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography feels a strong bond to this place, he has been coming here to study these birds for over thirty years.
To study penguins underwater, electronic instrument packages are glued to their feathers. The equipment will monitor the duration and depth of each dive as well as the penguin's heart rate. When the procedure is done, the protective cover of the tent is removed, and the Emperor penguin slowly makes its way back to the nearby colony.
Only now, this slightly awkward movie star is armed with a radio transmitter, and is about to become a leading actor in an important scientific investigation. The study begins when these clumsy flightless birds enter the water, and suddenly become aquanauts.
“A typical day in the Antarctic, or my favorite day, is when we’re in the field. The field means that we're in a remote camp which is a necessity if you work on Emperor penguins. We may be doing weights and measures of the birds or attaching instruments for remote monitoring.”
Scientists constantly monitor their activities. The data reveals that by slowing their heart rate, emperors can hold their breath for up to twenty-two minutes, reach depths of over fifteen hundred feet, while swimming in water hovering near zero degrees centigrade.These are extremes unmatched by any other bird on the planet.
But scientists now tell us that there is one extreme that even the mighty emperor penguin may not be able to withstand. Global warming is beginning to melt the sea ice surrounding the Antarctic, and it's a problem that could lead to the extinction of the Emperor.
Though the full impact of climate change may be only decades away – there are other threats to marine wildlife habitats that have already surfaced. Incapable of climbing onto or negotiating the rough terrain of the Antarctic's mainland, these flightless birds have no other choice than to reproduce and raise their young on sea ice.If the sea ice goes, so go the Emperors.
Read more about The State of the Ocean's Animals:
Introduction | Antarctica | China | Florida
| Monterey | Pacific Northwest