March 16, 2009

Melting Ice Threatens Future Of Arctic Polar Bears

Norway's Environment and Development Minister warned on Monday that melting Arctic ice is threatening the habitat of polar bears.

"If the ice is disintegrating in the Arctic, it will have enormous impact on polar bears," Erik Solheim told Reuters a day ahead of a meeting to discuss the future of polar bears.

The meeting will bring together nations that are home to the large white carnivores "“ Canada, Norway, the U.S., Russia and Danish-administered Greenland. In 1973, these range nations agreed to protect the polar bears and their habitat, but Tuesday's meeting will be the first since 1981 to bring all states together to discuss the matter.

"Clearly the main point in a rescue plan for the polar bear is to reduce global warming," Solheim said.

The world's polar bear population is currently estimated at 20,000-25,000, with 2,200-4,000 believed part of the Barents Sea population of northwestern Russia and Norway.

Although polar bears spend most of their lives near or on sea ice, and are exceptional swimmers, they are no match for their main prey, seals, and must therefore hunt on ice floes.

U.S. President George W. Bush's administration placed the bears on the endangered species list, something Solheim called very helpful.

"We should build on that to see what we can do to protect the polar bears," he said.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas blamed for global warming.  James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an expert on the matter, said other gases and pollutants such as ozone, soot methane, are more easily controlled in the Arctic than CO2.

For instance, industrial soot makes the snow black, allowing it to soak up more heat, hastening the melt.

"Their warming effect in the Arctic is very large," a Reuters report quoted Hansen as saying.

"Pollution in the Arctic contributes to the melting of the ice. Those climate-forcing mechanisms can be addressed more quickly than carbon dioxide."

In 2007, Arctic sea ice shrank to its smallest level since satellite measurements began three decades ago, causing concern that the ice might disappear entirely during the summer.

"I think it's still possible to save sea ice in the Arctic but it requires strong, prompt actions," Hansen said.

Roughly 700 polar bears are shot each year in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. However, hunting has been prohibited in the Svalbard archipelago off northernmost Norway in 1973.

And while hunting is illegal in the Russian part of the Arctic, an unknown number of bears are shot each year, according to the Norwegian Polar Institute.