Polar bears dream of a white Christmas

If they go, London could be next

Feature story - 28 November, 2004
An Arctic without ice. Polar bears extinct in the wild. Mass starvation of reindeer. And as a result of their snowy world melting, the possibility of a global sea-level rise of devastating proportions. It's the worst disaster film you've ever seen. Made real.

Polar bears in Churchill in Manitoba, Canada have to be tranquillised then airlifted north in order to access their natural habitat as the snow is returning later and later after the summer months.

A new report, "Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment," is the result of four years of work by 300 scientists. And the results aren't pretty. They tell us that the Arctic is warming far more rapidly than anyone thought, and at nearly twice the rate as the rest of the world.

For the first time we're hearing projections of an Arctic without ice not on a timescale of hundreds of years, but within 70.

What's so cool about ice?

The Arctic ice cap chills the planet's atmosphere, regulates the ocean currents that feed the whales and keeps western Europe warm, and holds 5 percent of the world's fresh water supply. Should the Greenland ice sheet melt completely, we can say goodbye to much of the world as we know it.

Studies estimate that a 7m (23 foot) rise in global sea level would result from this melt. Cities at sea level, such as Los Angeles, London and Amsterdam would be inundated. In the US, the coastlines of Florida and Louisiana would move inland.

A 6m (20 foot) rise would swamp Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and the entire Florida coastline, in addition to parts of Orlando and other inland areas. Bangladesh would virtually vanish beneath the waves. The Nile delta would be a memory.

Save the Humans

If the world has a challenge at this moment, it's to save the polar bears. Because if we can save them, we just might be able to save ourselves.

Polar bears depend entirely on sea-ice to survive. Many are stranded on land during the summer months, where they await the return of sea-ice strong enough for them to travel and hunt upon. But as the sea ice retreats sooner and returns later, the bears are facing prolonged fasts before the hunts start again.

If this ice free period gets any longer, it will be most problematic for female bears who need to store enough fat to last throughout a pregnancy, as indeed it is already in the southern part of their range. An ever-decreasing feeding season could seriously damage the bear's reproduction.

In the last two decades, Arctic ice cover has retreated 5 percent and the ice that has left has lost at least 30 percent of its thickness; and an average of two weeks have been lost from the bear's hunting season.

During this lost period the bears are reduced to scavenging through bins in built up areas and are seen as nuisances by local communities such as Churchill in Manitoba. Here almost every winter they have to 'arrest' the polar bears and either keep them contained until the snow comes or airlift them further north so that they can start their hunt again.

Countries are meeting this December in Argentina, to discuss the future of the world's only international effort against climate change, the Kyoto Protocol. Because Russia has ratified it will become binding international law on 16 February 2005. We have a message to them: if you want to save London, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam, save the polar bears. We want industrialized countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 30 percent by 2020, and 70-80 percent by 2050. We need a clean energy revolution. The only answer is a huge switch to renewable energy and investing in energy efficiency - let's hope we don't leave it too late - for the polar bears, and our children.

Take Action

Help us save the polar bears! Give to our efforts to stop climate change: Join Greenpeace today.