Stranded polar bears drowning in large numbers
Polar bears face extinction on melting planet
October 09 2005 at 06:40AM Independent Online.
By Anchorage Carrell and Severin Carrell
The polar bear is one of the natural world's most famous predators -
the king of the Arctic wastelands. But, like its vast Arctic home, the
polar bear is under unprecedented threat. Both are disappearing with
Thinning ice and longer summers are destroying the bears' habitat, and
as the ice floes shrink, the desperate animals are driven by starvation
into human settlements - to be shot. Stranded polar bears are drowning
in large numbers as they try to swim hundreds of kilometres to find
increasingly scarce ice floes. Local hunters find their corpses
floating on seas once coated in a thick skin of ice.
It is a phenomenon that frightens the native people who live around the
Arctic. Many fear their children will never know the polar bear.
'Are we fighting a losing battle?'
"The ice is moving further and further north," said Charlie Johnson,
64, an Alaskan Nupiak from Nome, in the state's far west. "In the
Bering Sea the ice leaves earlier and earlier. On the north slope, the
ice is retreating as far as 500km or 600km offshore."
Last year, hunters found half a dozen bears that had drowned about
320km north of Barrow, on Alaska's northern coast. "It seems they had
tried to swim for shore... A polar bear might be able to swim 150km but
His alarming testimony, given at a conference on global warming and
native communities held in the Alaskan city of Anchorage last month, is
just one story of the many changes happening across the globe. Climate
change threatens the survival of thousands of species - a threat
unparalleled since the last Ice Age, which ended some 10 000 years ago.
The vast majority, scientists warned this week, are migratory animals -
sperm whales, polar bears, gazelles, garden birds and turtles - whose
survival depends on the intricate web of habitats, food supplies and
weather conditions which, for some species, can stretch for more than
Every link of that chain is slowly but perceptibly altering.
'There is an earlier break-up of ice'
Europe's most senior ecologists and conservationists met in Aviemore,
in the Scottish Highlands, this week for a conference on the impact of
climate change on migratory species, an event organised by the British
government as part of its presidency of the European Union.
It is a well-chosen location. Aviemore's major winter employer - skiing
- is a victim of warmer winters. Ski slopes in the Cairngorms, which
once had snow caps year round on the highest peaks, have recently been
closed down when the winter snow failed. The snow bunting, ptarmigan
and dotterel - some of Scotland's rarest birds - are also given little
chance of survival as their harsh and marginal winter environments
A report presented in Aviemore reveals that this is a pattern being
repeated around the world. In the sub-Arctic tundra, caribou are
threatened by "multiple climate-change impacts".
Deeper snow at higher latitudes makes it harder for caribou herds to
travel. Faster and more regular "freeze-thaw" cycles make it harder to
dig out food under thick crusts of ice-covered snow. Wetter and warmer
winters are cutting calving success and increasing insect attacks and
The same holds true for migratory wading birds such as the red knot and
the northern teal. The endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, too, faces
extinction, the report says. They are of "key concern". It says species
"cannot shift further north as their climates become warmer. They have
nowhere left to go... We can see, very clearly, that most migratory
species are drifting towards the poles."
The report, commissioned by Britain's department for the environment,
food and rural affairs (Defra), makes gloomy predictions about the
world's animal populations.
"The habitats of migratory species most vulnerable to climate change
were found to be tundra, cloud forest, sea ice and low-lying coastal
areas," it states. "Increased droughts and lowered water tables,
particularly in key areas used as 'staging posts' on migration, were
also identified as key threats stemming from climate change."
Some of its findings include:
Four out of five migratory birds listed by the UN face problems ranging
from lower water tables to increased droughts, spreading deserts and
shifting food supplies in their crucial "fuelling stations" as they
One-third of turtle nesting sites in the Caribbean - home to
diminishing numbers of green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles - would
be swamped by a sea level rise of 50cm. This would "drastically" reduce
their numbers. At the same time, shallow waters used by the endangered
Mediterranean monk seal, dolphins, dugongs and manatees will slowly
Whales, salmon, cod, penguins and kittiwakes are affected by shifts in
distribution and abundance of krill and plankton, which has "declined
in places to a hundredth or thousandth of former numbers because of
warmer sea-surface temperatures".
Increased dam-building, a response to water shortages and growing
demand, is affecting the natural migration patterns of tucuxi, South
American river dolphins, "with potentially damaging results".
Fewer chiffchaffs, blackbirds, robins and song thrushes are migrating
from Britain due to warmer winters. Egg-laying is also two to three
weeks earlier than 30 years ago, showing a change in the birds'
The science magazine Nature predicted last year that up to 37 percent
of terrestrial species could become extinct by 2050. And the Defra
report presents more problems than solutions. Tackling these crises
will be far more complicated than just building more nature reserves -
a problem that Jim Knight, the British nature conservation minister,
A key issue in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is profound poverty.
After visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo last month, Knight
found it difficult to condemn local people eating gorillas, already
"You can't blame an individual who doesn't know how they're going to
feed their family every day from harvesting what's around them. That's
a real challenge," he said.
And the clash between nature and human need - a critical issue across
Africa - is likely to worsen. As its savannah and forests begin
shifting south, migratory animals will shift along with them. Some of
the continent's major national parks and reserves - such as the
Masai-Mara or Serengeti - may also have to move their boundaries if
their game species, the elephant and wildebeest, are to be properly
protected. This could bring conflict with local communities.
There is also a gap in scientific knowledge between what has been
discovered about the impact of climate change in the industrialised
world and in less developed countries. Similarly, fisheries experts
know more about species such as cod and haddock than they do about fish
that humans don't eat. Many environmentalists are pessimistic about the
prospects of halting, let alone reversing, this trend. "Are we fighting
a losing battle? Yes, we probably are," one naturalist said..
Britain, which is attempting to put climate change at the top of the
global agenda during its presidency of the G8 group of industrialised
nations, is still struggling to persuade the American, Japanese and
Australian governments to admit that mankind's gas emissions are the
biggest threat. These three continue to insist there is no proof that
climate change is largely manmade.
And many British environmentalists suspect that Prime Minister Tony
Blair's public commitment to a tougher global treaty to replace the
Kyoto Protocol, aimed at a 60 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions
by 2050, is not being backed up by the government in private.
Despite US President George Bush's resistance to a new global climate
treaty, many US states are being far more radical. Even the G8
communiqué after the Gleneagles summit in July had Bush confirming that
the climate was warming.
In Alaska last week, satellite images released by two US universities
and Nasa revealed that the amount of sea-ice cover over the polar ice
cap has fallen for the past four years. "A long-term decline is under
way," said Walt Meier of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre.
The Arctic's native communities don't need satellite images to tell
them this. John Keogak, 47, an Inuvialuit from Canada's North West
Territories, hunts polar bears, seals, caribou and musk ox.
"The polar bear is part of our culture," he said. "They use the ice as
a hunting ground for the seals. If there is no ice, there is no way the
bears will be able to catch the seals."
He said the number of bears was decreasing and feared his children
might not be able to hunt them. He said: "There is an earlier break-up
of ice, a later freeze-up. Now it's more rapid. Something is
And now, said Keogak, there was evidence that polar bears are facing an
unusual competitor - the grizzly bear. As the sub-Arctic tundra and
wastelands thaw, the grizzly is moving north, colonising areas where
they were previously unable to survive.
Life for Alaska's polar bears is rapidly becoming very precarious. -
This article was originally published on page 15 of Sunday Independent
on October 09, 2005