Polar Bears Dream of a White Christmas

Feature story - December 7, 2004
Up in the far north, we're facing the prospect of 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 sounds like a disaster film made for Hollywood, but unless we act quickly to stop global warming, it will be front-page news.

Polar bears in the Arctic

View a slideshow of images from our ship expeditions to the Arctic.

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 regulate our climate, 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 this melt would result in a 21-foot rise in global sea level. Cities at sea level, such as London, Los Angeles and Amsterdam would be inundated. The coastlines of Florida and Louisiana would move inland.

An 18-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. An ever-decreasing feeding season could seriously damage the bear's reproduction.

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

During this lost period the bears are reduced to scavenging in built-up areas and are seen as nuisances by local communities such as Churchill in Manitoba. Almost every winter, residents 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, the Protocol will become binding international law on February 16, 2005.

We have a message to the world's nations: 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 investments in energy efficiency. Let's hope it's not too late - for the polar bears, ourselves and our children.

Take Action

Help us save the polar bears! Give to our efforts to stop climate change and lead the transition to clean energy:

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