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Dee Boersma, PhD, remembers watching in 2006 as climate anomalies wreaked havoc on Emperor penguins—the same population featured in the popular 2005 film March of the Penguins

This colony bred in the same location as in other years, notes the University of Washington biology professor. Ice in the area had long been protected from the open sea and wind, which kept snow from piling up and freezing the birds’ eggs. 

But in September 2006, with the chicks just more than half-grown, the adults apparently sensed danger and uncharacteristically marched the colony more than 3 miles to different ice, says Dr. Boersma, who wrote the foreword for Conservation Biology: Research Priorities for the Next Decade. The ice they chose remained intact the longest, but in late September a strong storm broke up the remaining ice, and the penguin chicks were forced into the water. While the adults could survive, the chicks needed two more months of feather growth and buildup of insulating fat to be independent. The likely result of this climate anomaly, Dr. Boersma predicted, would be a total colony-wide breeding failure. 

This problem raises the question of whether humans are making it too difficult for other species to coexist, Dr. Boersma says. Penguins in places like Argentina, the Falklands and Africa run increasing risks of being fouled by oil, either from ocean drilling or petroleum discharge from passing ships. The birds’ chances of getting oiled are also increasing; in many cases, they have to forage much farther than before to find the prey on which they feed. 

“As the fish humans have traditionally eaten get more and more scarce, we are fishing down the food chain,” Dr. Boersma says, “and now we are beginning to compete more directly with smaller organisms for the food they depend on. As the world’s population continues to explode, and more and more people live in coastal areas, the negative effects are growing for both marine and shore-based habitats used by a variety of species. There is an urgent need to begin monitoring those negative impacts. 

“I don’t think we can wait,” she warns. “In 1960, we had 3 billion people in the world. Now, it’s 6.7 billion, and it’s expected to be 8 billion by 2025. We’ve waited a very long time. It’s clear that humans have changed the face of the Earth, and we have changed the face of the oceans, but we just can’t see it. We’ve already waited too long. 

“The Discovery Channel and public television are very popular for their nature programs, and those featuring penguins are especially popular. But we don’t want to just have them in our television sets. We want to have them out in the world.” 

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