Polar Bears on Thin Ice

NWF   |   January 3, 2007

Last week I stated that U.S. Fish & Wildlife did the right thing by officially declaring that the polar bear deserves protection as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

This is another powerful wake up call. Are we listening?

Even though they still number about 22,000 to 25,000, the polar bear is in grave danger because their ice habitat, once the size of the continental United States, is shrinking fast. The current rate of sea ice decline – it is shrinking by over 23,000 square miles per year or nearly nine percent per decade according to estimates provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the loss of sea ice is already threatening to destroy fragile Arctic ecosystems vitally important to polar bear habitat.

Assessing the impact of habitat loss on polar bears, another recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center discovered a "very dramatic" change in cub survival and estimated that as few as 43 percent of the polar bear cubs in Alaska’ Beaufort Sea are surviving their first year as a result of shrinking ice habitat. Cub survival is down from about 65 percent survival measured in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A loss of habitat equates to a loss of food supply. The bears are losing body mass and having difficulties sustaining cubs.

The fate of the Arctic is not just the fate of the polar bears, it will be the fate of our children’s world.

Think of the Arctic as a giant mirror the size of the continental U.S. keeping the planet cool by reflecting most of the sun’s energy back into space . Now think about the complete disappearance of that reflector in as short as 30 years. Replace it with an energy absorbing ocean and watch the profound and dangerous climatic and ecological changes to the planet.

The reason why the Feds were forced to act is that the Arctic habitat, once the size of the US, is rapidly melting and will be completely gone during the summer minimums in about 34 years. The Nation Center for Atmospheric Research and the UCAR’s projections for summer minimums of ice are deeply disturbing. You can see their projection and the animation at:


Because of the way the administration played the polar bear listing, media coverage of the announcement left the door open to natural variability. That’s nonsense!

Humans have put about a trillion tons of CO2 in the biosphere half of which is still in the sky.  That’s a 36% increase! Yet, some still question our climatic impact?

We have a moral responsibility to move beyond denial and apathy to confront and solve this problem to protect wildlife and to protect our children’s future.  Let’s work together in 2007 to wake up America to the extreme danger of global warming.

Published: January 3, 2007