Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

Welcome to the newly converted

A polar bear stalks the Arctic ice.

A polar bear stalks the Arctic ice.

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — It seems the Bush (II) administration has gotten a touch of the not-so-new religion.

The administration, which has shown tremendous reluctance to list species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, is weighing the recommendation that a high-profile species — the polar bear, Ursus maritimus — be listed for protection.

Even more remarkable is the administration’s reasoning behind its recommendation. Climate change — the problem we haven’t had to worry about for the first six years of the Bush (II) administration — is destroying the Arctic environment on which the species depends.

“Polar bears are one of nature’s ultimate survivors, able to live and thrive in one of the world’s harshest environments,” Secretary of the Interior Dick Kempthorne is quoted as saying in a Dec. 27 press release announcing his decision. “But we are concerned the polar bears’ habitat may literally be melting.”

Kempthorne is ordering a yearlong study of the polar bear’s status to determine if it should ultimately be listed as a threatened or endangered species.

The problem for some polar bear populations, especially the Western Hudson Bay population, is that the Arctic ice pack has been shrinking. The bears do most of their feeding on the ice — the ice is teeming with prey, such as ringed seals. As the ice pack shrinks, obviously, the bears’ habitat shrinks. Even for polar bears that visit land, such as in the Hudson and James bays in Canada, their lives are tied to the ice. Females on land may fast for as long as eight months while waiting for the ice to return.

But as the ice pack retreats farther and farther from shore, polar bears have to swim longer distances to reach the ice. This can have catastrophic consequences. In a phenomenon rarely seen until recently, carcasses of drowned bears have been found. While drowning has probably always been a cause for polar bear mortality, it stands to reason that if bears are forced to swim longer distances over deeper waters, more and more will meet that fate than before. The longer swims will take an especially high toll on the young.

As of now, some populations of polar bears — such as the Western Hudson Bay population — are shrinking. Cub survival rates are declining. Bear weights are declining, which indicates an inadequate diet. There is also evidence of increased cannibalism among polar bears, as well as possibly higher rates of drowning.

As I have stated before, in this blog and elsewhere, a prime cause for shrinkage of the ice pack is warming of the Arctic. Loss of ice sets in motion a positive feedback: reduced ice cover leads to lower albedo (reflectivity) of the Arctic; lower albedo leads to more solar heat absorbed by Arctic waters; more solar heat absorbed by Arctic waters leads to warmer waters; warmer waters leads to reduced ice cover; and so on. . .

The Department of Interior’s press release points out that analysis of climate change is beyond its scope. It does add the following comment:

“However, climate change science and issues of causation are discussed in other analyses undertaken by the Bush Administration. The administration treats climate change very seriously and recognizes the role of greenhouse gases in climate change.”

I hope the administration, in its waning years, practices what it has herein preached.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife service is seeking public comment on the proposed ruling. The comment period will run 90 days from the date the proposal is published in the Federal Register (the anticipated publication date is 11 January 2007). More information about the proposal and related issues of polar bear conservation can be found at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Alaska’s Polar Bear Conservation Issues page.

For more information:

Center for Biological Diversity polar bears page

Polar Bears International

World Wildlife Fund polar bears page

A personal note:

The best opportunities for most North Americans to see polar bears can be found in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world. The Western Hudson Bay population of bears comes on land during the summer. The bears are a popular tourist attraction — ecotourism is a major part of Churchill’s economy.

I saw a mother and two cubs on 28 July 1994 alongside railroad tracks near the southern part of town while riding the Canadian National (now the Hudson Bay Railway) into town. I was visiting the area to do some tree-ring sampling while on a two-month-long expedition to northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I was ecstatic to see polar bears from the safety of the train. I spent my three days in the field, however, doing my damnedest to keep them from seeing me.

Photos and more from my visit to Churchill can be found on my travels site.

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