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Decreasing Arctic sea ice leaves polar bears at a crossroads


Arctic Sea ice is reported to have reached its 2014 minimum on 17 September, before the onset of the winter freeze.

At 5.02 million km 2 (1.94 million km 2), it is the sixth lowest on satellite record, demonstrating the continued downward trend in Arctic sea ice. The last eight years have been the lowest on satellite record.

Arctic sea ice map © NOAAArctic sea ice map © NOAA

Even taking the current growth in Antarctic sea ice into account, our planet has lost approximately 3 million km2 of sea ice over 35 years, roughly the size of India. Scientific forecasts predict continued loss, with the possibility that the Arctic Ocean could be virtually ice-free in the summer within a generation. The whole Arctic sea ice ecosystem is at risk as this trend continues, affecting local peoples’ livelihoods. Negative impacts including the increased frequency of extreme weather as a result of the loss of sea ice are predicted far beyond the Arctic, including here in the UK.

This also leaves the polar bear, icon of the Arctic and an indicator of the health of the ecosystem, at a significant crossroads.  One analysis predicts that by the mid-21st century two thirds of the world’s polar bear population may vanish due to the rapid loss of the sea ice that they depend upon – a direct result of human-induced climate warming.

But there is reason for hope. Polar bears are often seen as the poster-child of climate change, and the need to take urgent action. And today, unlike many large carnivores, polar bears are still found in roughly their original habitat and range – and in some places at least their populations are stable or increasing.

There are about 20-25,000 polar bears in the wild. They are not evenly distributed throughout the Arctic. For management purposes they are divided into 19 sub-populations, with the majority of these in Canada. According to the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group and the Canadian Polar Bear Technical Committee, five sub-populations are exhibiting fairly stable numbers, one may be increasing, four are declining or showing signs of ecological stress – and we just don’t have enough data to know what is happening in the remaining nine sub-populations.

I asked Dag Vongraven, the Chair of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, what he saw as the greatest challenge facing polar bear conservation today.

According to Dag, the ‘climate threat is unlike any other threat we have faced before. In the past, management actions to mitigate threats have been agreed upon and implemented as clear impacts have been witnessed in the population in question. Problem solved. The projected speed and scale of climate warming, however, force us to act largely before we have seen clear and undisputable effects of climate change manifest in most populations’

‘To an outsider it is impressive how WWF has managed to have an impact in remote areas in the Arctic. They have the potential to get things done, including when it comes to climate change mitigation and polar bear conservation’.

Polar bear, Svalbard © Gert Polet, WWF NetherlandsPolar bear, Svalbard © Gert Polet, WWF Netherlands

In the Arctic, we are tracking polar bear movements to develop solutions to help mothers and their cubs face a brighter future. We are monitoring denning sites and mapping future habitat – areas where summer sea ice is likely to remain the longest. We are helping people living in environments with polar bears avoid unnecessary conflicts, by providing bear- resistant food and rubbish storage, and deterrents to scare them away from villages.

Coca-Cola is helping us to do this work and protect polar bear mums and their cubs. Last year they committed €1 million to Arctic Home, which supported essential research into the Last Ice Area, and helped to fund the 2013 International Polar Bear Conservation Forum.

Now in its second year – Arctic Home  is active in seven countries across Europe, and we’re encouraging everyone to donate to the campaign and help us achieve even more. For every pound donated this year, Coca-Cola will match it!

But tackling climate change and protecting the polar bear also requires a global solution. David Cameron, Barack Obama and over 100 world leaders met in New York this week to renew their commitment to a global deal on cutting emissions, to be signed in Paris in December next year.

The plight of the polar bear illustrates that we cannot continue business as usual, instead immediate and aggressive action is required to tackle climate change, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prevent irreversible change to the Arctic – and beyond.

What are your thoughts on climate change and Rod’s blog? Leave us a comment.

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