Polar Bear Listing Highlights Broader Arctic Challenge

With its decision to list the polar bear as threatened, the Interior Department finally acknowledged the clear scientific consensus around the forecast for these magnificent animals. For polar bears, some of the worst impacts of global warming are already happening: habitat loss, nutritional stress, and previously unheard of tragic acts of drowning and cannibalism. And the iconic polar bear is not alone in struggling against the severe impacts of climate change in the Arctic.

The planet is warming much faster near the poles than near the equator, and the Alaskan arctic has already warmed 3-5 degrees Farenheit in the last 50 years, with more increases projected. Changes of this magnitude place the entire Arctic ecosystem at risk, and this risk was described in a report called Impacts of a Warming Arctic; Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2004), published by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum with eight Arctic country members and six Indigenous Peoples organizations, and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) representing 18 national academies of science.

This authoritative report describes expected decreases in ice and snow cover, shifting of vegetation zones and animal species’ diversity and ranges, failing roads and other structures due to thawing permafrost, threats to communities from more frequent and severe storms, and increased forest wildfires and pestilence. These impacts in turn challenge a wide range of fish and wildlife, from the polar bear and other ice-dependent marine mammals to caribou, migratory birds and freshwater fish. Finally, declines in available fish and wildlife impact the communities and cultures that depend on a healthy Arctic ecosystem for survival.

This is just a thumbnail sketch of the challenges that global warming is bringing to the fish and wildlife, habitat, ecosystem function, infrastructure, and ultimately to the people of the Arctic. Our response will need to be commensurate to the challenge and far stronger than the status quo prescription that the Interior Department just gave the polar bear.

Pat Lavin
National Wildlife Federation
Alaska Office

Published: May 22, 2008