- Excerpt: Stranded polar bears are drowning in large numbers as they
try to swim hundreds of miles to find increasingly scarce ice floes.
Local hunters find their corpses floating on seas once coated in a
thick skin of ice.
3 October 2005 09:10
Species are dying out faster than we have dared recognise, scientists
will warn this week. The erosion of polar ice is the first break in a
fragile chain of life extending across the planet, from bears in the
north to penguins in the far south
By Andrew Buncombe in Anchorage and Severin Carrell in London
Published: 02 October 2005
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 alarming speed.
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 miles
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 that live around
the Arctic. Many fear their children will never know the polar
bear. "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 300 or 400 miles
Last year, hunters found half a dozen bears that had drowned about
200 miles 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
100 miles but not 400."
His alarming testimony, given at a conference on global warming and
native communities held in the Alaskan capital, Anchorage, last week,
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
The vast majority, scientists will warn 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 6,500 miles. Every link of that chain is slowly but
Europe's most senior ecologists and conservationists are meeting 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 disappear.
A report being presented this week in Aviemore reveals 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 disease.
The same holds true for migratory wading birds such as the red knot
and the northern seal. The endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, too,
faces extinction, the report says. They are of "key concern". It says
that 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, passed to The Independent on Sunday, and commissioned by
the 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 migrate.
* 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 (20ins). This
will "drastically" hit their numbers. At the same time, shallow
waters used by the endangered Mediterranean monk seal, dolphins,
dugongs and manatees will slowly disappear.
* 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 the UK due to warmer winters. Egg-laying is also
getting two to three weeks earlier than 30 years ago, showing a
change in the birds' biological clocks.
The science magazine Nature predicted last year that up to 37 per
cent 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 nature conservation
A key issue in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is profound poverty.
After visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo last month, Mr
Knight found it difficult to condemn local people eating gorillas,
already endangered. "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 will 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 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 told the IoS last month.
The UK, 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 Tony Blair's public
commitment to a tougher global treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol,
aimed at a 60 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, is
not being backed up by the Government in private.
Despite 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 Mr Bush confirming
that the climate was warming.
In Alaska last week, satellite images released by two US universities
and the space agency 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 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 happening."
And now, said Mr 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.
Vanishing from the earth
Already listed as "critically endangered", only about 700 mountain
gorillas, including the distinctively marked adult male silverbacks,
migrate within the cloud forests of the volcanic Virunga mountains of
the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. After a
century of human persecution it faced extinction. Now its unique but
marginal mountain forests - already heavily reduced by forestry - are
shrinking, because of climate change. It will be forced to climb
higher for cooler climates, but will effectively run out of mountain.
Across Africa, habitats are shifting as temperatures rise, or
disappearing in droughts, affecting the migrations of millions of
wildebeest, and savannah elephant and Thomson's gazelle. This will
hit game reserves and national parks - forcing many to move their
The number of male green turtles is falling because of rising
temperatures, threatening their survival. Turtle nests need a
temperature of precisely 28.8C to hatch even numbers of males and
females. On Ascension Island, where nest temperatures are up
0.5C,females now outnumber males three to one. On Antigua too, nest
temperatures for hawkbill turtles are higher than the ideal
incubation level. Hatchling survival rates are also cut by higher
temperatures. Egg-laying beaches for all species of turtle are being
lost to rising sea levels. A third of nesting beaches in the
Caribbean would be lost by a 50cm rise in sea level.
This rare antelope, thought to be half-way between an antelope and a
sheep, and found in Russia and Mongolia, is "critically endangered".
Hunted heavily, its autumn migration to escape bitter weather and
spring migration to find water and food are being hit by unusual
weather cycles. The antelope will be forced by climate instability to
find new grazing areas, coming intoconflict with humans. Bad years
can cut its numbers by 50 per cent, because of high mortality and
poor birth rates.
The migration of the sperm whale, one of the earth's largest mammals,
made famous by Herman Melville's epic Moby-Dick, is closely linked to
the squid, its main food source. Squid numbers are affected by warmer
water and weather phenomena such as El Niño. Adult male sperm whales
up to 20m long like cold water in the disappearing ice-packs. Warm
water cuts sperm whale reproduction because food supplies fall.
Around the Galapagos Islands, a fall in births is linked to higher
sea surface temperatures. Plankton and krill, key foods for many
cetaceans such as the pilot whale, have in some regions declined 100-
fold in warmer water.