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Melting Planet

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  • Mike Neuman
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 3, 2005
      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
      Melting Planet

      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
      years ago.

      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
      perceptibly altering.

      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
      minister, acknowledges.

      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

      Mountain gorilla

      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

      Green turtle

      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.

      Saiga antelope

      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.

      Sperm whale

      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.
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