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What penguins can tell us about global warming in the Antarctic

Bumping over freezing waters of Antarctica's Weddell Sea, scientists from Stony Brook University in the US are on the hunt for penguins, knowing that what they find can help tell a story about an entire region and climate change. 

Counting penguins is about more than understanding how global warming is affecting this iconic cold loving species. 

In a sense it's the other way around - for scientists the animals themselves are useful proxies for what's happening in the entire ecosystem.

Michael Wethington is part of the team of three scientists.

He says Adelie and Gentoo penguins return to the same nesting sites repeatedly, giving a good idea of population numbers year after year.

In contrast, many other Antarctic species live in the ocean, making them much harder to track.

Wethington's team is particularly interested in how populations of Adelie penguins are holding up in the Weddell Sea, an area that so far has warmed more slowly than the rest of the continent and which scientists hope could form a refuge for many animals that need a cold environment.

Adelie numbers have seen large declines in other areas, such as the western Antarctic Peninsula, where warming has occurred much more rapidly. 

Collecting data across 21 sites, the scientists have come back with good news - Adelie numbers have remained stable over the last decade, including in several large colonies.

Louisa Carson, a Greenpeace campaigner who helped facilitate the trip by providing the scientists passage on the groups ship, the Arctic Sunrise, welcomed the news, but said it reinforced the need for protections to be put in place by governments.

The particularly cold and remote environment means that scientists had very little knowledge of what was going on in the Weddell Sea until relatively recently. 

But advances in technology mean that researchers can now build up a level of understanding of life on the ground through high resolution satellite images, with penguin colonies proving possible to monitor from space.

This, coupled with the simplicity of boots on the ground surveys, make penguin populations a useful marker of climate change for scientists. 

(Source: Reuters) 

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