Steady melting of Arctic ice threatens the survival of polar bears, which hunt seals on ice floes. A few years ago, the demise of Arctic sea ice and a majority of polar bears was projected at the end of the century, but ice has melted so quickly that both may vanish within a few decades. The offshore ice-based ecosystem is sustained by upwelling nutrients that
A polar bear (Jeff Dixon)
feed plankton, shrimp, and other small organisms, which feed the fish. These, in turn, feed the seals, which feed the bears. The Native people of the area also occupy a position in this cycle of life. When the ice is not present, the entire cycle collapses.
Seymour Laxon, senior lecturer in geophysics at UCLA's Centre for Polar Observation and Modeling, said that serious concern exists over the long-term survival hopes for polar bears as a species. "To put it bluntly," he said, "No ice means no bears" (Elliott, 2003; Laxon et al., 2003, 947). Andrew Derocher, a professor of biology at the University of Alberta, supported Laxon's beliefs. "If the progress of climate change continues without any intervention, then the prognosis for polar bears would ultimately be extinction," he said (Expert Fears, 2003, C-8). As part of the U.S. federal government's decision-making process regarding whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Geological Survey in 2007 issued a series of reports anticipating that their population would plunge two-thirds by 2050 as Arctic sea ice retreats. After the Arctic ice cap shrank by almost a quarter in a year by the end of summer such projections were being moved forward.
During 2002, a World Wildlife Fund study, "Polar Bears at Risk," said that the combination oftoxic chemicals and global warming could cause extinction of roughly 22,000 surviving polar bears in the wild within 50 years. Lynn Rosentrater, coauthor of the report and a climate scientist in the WWF's Arctic program, said, "Since the sea ice is melting earlier in the spring, polar bears move to land earlier without having developed as much fat reserves to survive the ice free season. They are skinny bears by the end of summer, which in the worst case can affect their ability to reproduce" (Thin Polar Bears, 2002).
Without ice, polar bears can become hungry, miserable creatures, especially in unaccustomed warmth. During the Baffin Island town of Iqaluit's record warm summer of July 2001, two tourists were hospitalized after they were mauled by a polar bear in a park south of town. On July 20, a similar confrontation occurred in northern Labrador as a polar bear tried to claw its way into a tent occupied by a group of Dutch tourists. The tourists escaped injury but the bear was shot to death. "The bears are looking for a cooler place," said Ben Kovic, Nunavut's chief wildlife manager (Johansen, 2001, 18).
Until recently, polar bears had their own food sources and usually went about their business without trying to steal food from humans. Beset by late freezes and early thaws, hungry polar bears are coming into contact with people more frequently. In Churchill, Manitoba, polar bears waking from their winter's slumber have found Hudson's Bay ice melted earlier than usual. Instead of making their way onto the ice in search of seals, the bears walk along the coast until they get to Churchill, where they block motor traffic and pillage the town dump for food scraps. Churchill now has a holding tank for wayward polar bears that is larger than its jail for people.
Artificial Hockey Ice and AiR-Conditioning in Nunavut
By the winter of 2002-2003, a warming trend was forcing hockey players in Canada's far north to seek rinks with artificial ice. Canada's Financial Post reported that "[officials in the Arctic say global warming has cut hockey season in half in the past two decades and may hinder the future of development of northern hockey stars such as Jordin Tootoo" (Ice is Scarce, 2003). According to the Financial Post report, hockey rinks in northern communities were raising funds directed toward installation of cooling plants to create artificial ice because of the reduced length of time during which natural ice was available. In Rankin Inlet, on Hudson Bay in Nunavut, a community of 2,400 residents installed artificial ice during the summer of 2003 (Ice is Scarce, 2003).
Hockey season on natural ice, which ran from September until May in the 1970s, often now begins around Christmas and ends in March, according to Jim MacDonald, president of Rankin Inlet Minor Hockey. "It's giving us about three months of hockey. Once we finally get going, it's time to stop. At the beginning of our season, we're playing teams that have already been on the ice for two or three months," MacDonald said (Ice is Scarce, 2003.) According to Tom Thompson, president of Hockey Nunavut. There are about two-dozen natural ice rinks in tiny communities throughout the territory but only two with artificial ice, Thompson said. Both are in the capital, Iqaluit (Ice is Scarce, 2003).
"In my lifetime I will not be surprised if we see a year where Hudson Bay doesn't freeze over completely," said Jay Anderson of Environment Canada. It's very dramatic. Yesterday [January 6, 2003], an alert was broadcast over the Rankin Inlet radio station warning that ice on rivers around the town is unsafe. The temperature hovered around minus 12 [degrees] C. It's usually minus 37 there at this time of year" (Ice is Scarce, 2003).
Meanwhile, during 2006, officials in Nunavut authorized the installation of air conditioners in official buildings for the first time, because summertime temperatures in some southern Arctic villages have climbed into the 80-degree (F.) range in recent years.
Northwest Passage Nearly Dren
Extent of Arctic ice cap, September 2007; the ice cap lost 24 percent of its extent in one year, opening the Northwest Passage for the first time (NASA Earth Observatory)
During late August 2007, for the first time, the Northwest Passage from Baffin Bay to Northern Alaska opened during a season of record ice melt for the Arctic ice cap. European mariners had been seeking and failing to find such a route since 1497, when English King Henry VII sent Italian explorer John Cabot to look for a route from Europe to the Orient that would avoid the southern tip of Africa. Many explorers failed at the task, including Sir Francis Drake and Captain James Cook. NASA's Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer aboard the Aqua satellite observed open water along nearly the entire route on August 22, 2007. "Although nearly open, the Northwest Passage was not necessarily easy to navigate in August 2007," NASA noted. "Located 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of the Arctic Circle and less than 1,930 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the North Pole, this sea route remains a significant challenge, best met with a strong icebreaker ship backed by a good insurance policy" (Northwest Passage, 2007).
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