Double Trouble for Polar Bears: Melting Arctic Sea Ice and Offshore Oil Development

The combination of near-record
Arctic sea-ice loss and continued development of oil and gas in proposed polar
bear critical habitat spells double trouble for Alaska's polar bears, according
to a new report issued by the National
Wildlife Federation and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

Mapping out recently proposed
polar bear critical habitat relative to approved offshore oil development and
recent trends in sea-ice decline, Double
Trouble: Melting Arctic Sea Ice and Offshore Oil Development
highlights the
multiple threats facing polar bears in Alaska.

"The Department of
Interior is undermining its own efforts to protect polar bears by promoting oil
and gas development in some of the same
areas it proposes to designate as critical habitat," said Dr. Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the
National Wildlife Federation. "If ever there was a case for erring on the
side of caution this is it. Instead, DOI is recklessly moving forward, handing
out permits such as the one earlier this month allowing Shell Oil to drill in
Alaska's Chukchi Sea as early as next summer."

In addition to the threat of
oil and gas development, global warming continues to cause declines in the sea ice that polar bears need
to survive, including within the area proposed as polar bear critical habitat.
According to the report, sea-ice extent during in October and November, 2009
was the third lowest on record, at 19 percent and 9 percent below the long-term
average, respectively.

"The sea ice is melting
faster than previously projected," said Dr. Amanda Staudt, climate
scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. "For the first time this
year, commercial cargo ships were able to traverse the Northeast Passage and
the Northwest Passage saw its first commercial use in 2008. Some scientists now
say that the Arctic could be free of sea ice in late summer by as early as

Furthermore, thicker, more
stable multi-year sea ice was at an all-time low, having been replaced by
thinner annual sea ice less able to support polar bears.

"These trends in Arctic
sea ice are particularly alarming for mother polar bears and their newborn
young," said Dr. Sterling Miller, senior wildlife biologist with the
National Wildlife Federation. "The decline in multi-year sea ice means fewer
suitable areas of denning and foraging habitat for polar bears. The reported
drowning of polar bears is a disturbing sign of the increasingly long distance
between their sea ice habitat and denning habitat on land."

The report lays out several
steps to give polar bears a fighting chance, including expanding the area
proposed for critical habitat and passing comprehensive clean energy and
climate legislation to cut the carbon pollution that drives global warming.

"The plight of the polar
bear highlights the plight of our planet," said Inkley. "The news
coming out of the Arctic increases the urgency for world leaders gathered in
Copenhagen to agree on a plan to reduce the pollution that threatens wildlife
and our own future."

Published: December 22, 2009