Is Global Warming Killing the Polar Bears?
- Is Global Warming Killing the Polar Bears?
By JIM CARLTON
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 14, 2005
It may be the latest evidence of global warming: Polar bears are
Scientists for the first time have documented multiple deaths of
polar bears off Alaska, where they likely drowned after swimming long
distances in the ocean amid the melting of the Arctic ice shelf. The
bears spend most of their time hunting and raising their young on ice
In a quarter-century of aerial surveys of the Alaskan coastline
before 2004, researchers from the U.S. Minerals Management Service
said they typically spotted a lone polar bear swimming in the ocean
far from ice about once every two years. Polar-bear drownings were so
rare that they have never been documented in the surveys.
But in September 2004, when the polar ice cap had retreated a record
160 miles north of the northern coast of Alaska, researchers counted
10 polar bears swimming as far as 60 miles offshore. Polar bears can
swim long distances but have evolved to mainly swim between sheets of
ice, scientists say.
The researchers returned to the vicinity a few days after a fierce
storm and found four dead bears floating in the water. "Extrapolation
of survey data suggests that on the order of 40 bears may have been
swimming and that many of those probably drowned as a result of rough
seas caused by high winds," the researchers say in a report set to be
While the government researchers won't speculate on why a climate
change is taking place in the Arctic, environmentalists unconnected
to the survey say U.S. policies emphasizing oil and gas development
are exacerbating global warming, which is accelerating the melting of
the ice. "For anyone who has wondered how global warming and reduced
sea ice will affect polar bears, the answer is simple -- they die,"
said Richard Steiner, a marine-biology professor at the University of
The environmental group Greenpeace began airing a 30-second
commercial yesterday in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and other
cities showing an animated adult polar bear and a cub on a cracking
ice floe. The two bears, nowhere near land, slip underneath the
water. "Polar bears may soon be extinct because of global warming,"
the voice-over states. It ends with "Global Warming: It's the Real
Thing," a takeoff of a Coca-Cola Co. commercial featuring polar bears.
Some experts say that climate change may indeed be shrinking the ice
pack, but they dispute that emissions are the main culprit or that
significantly cutting greenhouse gases would really make a
difference. "Whether humans are responsible for some, most, or all of
the current warming trend in the Arctic, there is no proposal on the
table that would actually prevent continued warming or reverse
present trends," said Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the
National Center for Policy Analysis, a nongovernment organization
based in Dallas. "The question is how to adapt to future changes in
climate, regardless of the direction or the cause."
In addition to documenting polar-bear deaths, the Minerals Management
Service researchers, Chuck Monnett, Jeffrey Gleason and Lisa
Rotterman, also found a striking shift in the bears' habits. From
1979 to 1991, 87% of the bears spotted were found mostly on sea ice.
From 1992 to 2004, the percentage dropped to 33%. Most of the
remaining bears have been found either in the ocean or on beaches,
congregating around carcasses of whales butchered by hunters. In the
past, polar bears were rarely seen at such kill sites, because they
spent their time hunting their favorite meal -- seals -- on sea ice.
Marine experts consider the findings -- to be presented at a marine-
mammal conference this week in San Diego -- an ominous sign. Some
have warned for years that a rapid thawing of the Arctic from global
warming could endanger species like the polar bear. Already, a warmer
Alaska over the past half-century has been linked to increased
erosion of rivers and streams, insect infestations and the
undermining of pipelines and roads as the permafrost thaws.
Alarmed by the swift changes, the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, a
consortium of the state's tribes, earlier this month passed a
resolution urging that the U.S. government enact a mandatory program
to reduce global warming.