Polar Bears Drown, Islands Appear in Arctic Thaw
by: Alister Doyle 16 September 2006
OSLO (Reuters) - Polar bears are drowning and receding Arctic glaciers have uncovered previously unknown islands in a drastic 2006 summer thaw widely blamed on global warming.
Signs of wrenching changes are apparent around the Arctic region due to unusual warmth -- the summer minimum for ice is usually reached between mid-September and early October before the Arctic freeze extends its grip.
"We know about three new islands this year that have been uncovered because the glaciers have retreated," said Rune Bergstrom, environmental adviser to the governor of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago about 1,000 km (600 miles) from the North Pole.
The largest is about 300 by 100 meters, he told Reuters.
On a trip this summer "We saw a couple of polar bears in the sea east of Svalbard -- one of them looked to be dead and the other one looked to be exhausted," said Julian Dowdeswell, head of the Scott Polar Research Institute in England.
He said that the bears had apparently been stranded at sea by melting ice. The bears generally live around the fringes of the ice where they find it easiest to hunt seals.
NASA projected this week that Arctic sea ice is likely to recede in 2006 close to a low recorded in 2005 as part of a melting trend in recent decades. A stormy August in 2006 had slightly slowed the 2006 melt.
"There are very unusual conditions this year from Svalbard to Alaska," said Samantha Smith, director of the WWF's environmental group's Arctic Programme.
One international study in 2004 projected that summer ice could disappear completely by 2100, undermining the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and driving creatures such as polar bears toward extinction.
Smith said the shrinking ice should be a wake-up call for governments to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly from power plants, factories and cars that most scientists say are causing global warming.
"The Arctic is likely to warm more than any other part of the world" because of global warming, said Dowdeswell. Darker water and soil, once exposed, soaks up far more of the sun's heat than mirror-like ice and snow.
The melt may also open up the Arctic to more exploration for oil, gas and minerals, increase fisheries and open a short-cut shipping route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Ian Stirling, a researcher with the Canadian Wildlife Service, said polar bears were finding it harder to find food, threatening their ability to reproduce.
"In 1980 the average weight of adult females in western Hudson Bay was 650 pounds (300 kg). Their average weight in 2004 was just 507 pounds," he said in a report this week. Numbers in the Hudson Bay region dropped to 950 in 2004 from 1,200 in 1989.
For some, the unseasonal warmth is good news. It was 5 C (41 F) on Friday in Longyearbyen, the main village on Svalbard. "Last year the first snow fell here on September 11 and stayed all winter," said Bergstrom.
"A lot of people here have boats to go out hunting in summer and go to cabins. So it's a good year for them -- the ice melted earlier and they can still use the boats," he said.