Researchers from British Antarctic Survey said that rising temperatures and changing wind patterns from global warming will negatively affect the sea ice on which emperor penguins breed.
After reviewing more than 150 studies on the species, scientists indicated that emperor populations will decrease by more than 50% by 2100.
In a new paper published in the journal Biological Conservation, they concluded that improvements in climate change forecasting in relation to impacts on Antarctic wildlife may help the penguins’ chances of survival.
The researchers also recommended that emperor penguins should be listed as a specially protected species, warning that more than half of the birds – at least 300,000 – would die as sea ice melts due to rising temperatures.
The emperor penguin – which is the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species – is the only penguin species that breeds during the Antarctic winter and breed on seasonal sea ice.
The species is considered to be highly sensitive to climatic changes. In the 1970s, population declines of 50% in the Terre Adelie region were observed during an abnormally prolonged warm period which resulted in reduced sea-ice coverage.
Other primary causes for an increased risk of species endangerment are declining food availability and industrial fisheries on the crustacean and fish populations.
Lead author Dr Philip Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said: “The current rate of warming in parts of the Antarctic is greater than anything in the recent glaciological record.
“Though emperor penguins have experienced periods of warming and cooling over their evolutionary history, the current rates of warming are unprecedented.”
He added: “Currently, we have no idea how the emperors will adjust to the loss of their primary breeding habitat – sea ice. They are not agile and climbing ashore across steep coastal land forms will be difficult.”
Dr Peter Fretwell, remote sensing specialist at BAS and co-author of the paper, said: “Some colonies of emperor penguins may not survive the coming decades, so we must work to give as much protection as we can to the species to give them the best chance.”
Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at the World Wildlife Fund, which funded the study, said: “Emperor penguins are perfectly adapted to survive in the most remote and extreme frontier of our planet.
“But even they cannot hide from the global climate crisis as they lose the sea ice from beneath their feet.
“We need to take urgent action to protect this incredible species through the creation of vast marine protected areas and rapid and deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.”