The polar bear is one of the natural world's most famous predators - the king
of the Arctic wastelands. But, like its vast Arctic home, the polar bear is
under unprecedented threat. Both are disappearing with alarming speed.
Thinning ice and longer summers are destroying the bears' habitat, and as the
ice floes shrink, the desperate animals are driven by starvation into human
settlements - to be shot. Stranded polar bears are drowning in large numbers
as they try to swim hundreds of miles to find increasingly scarce ice floes.
Local hunters find their corpses floating on seas once coated in a thick skin
It is a phenomenon that frightens the native people that live around the Arctic.
Many fear their children will never know the polar bear. "The ice is moving
further and further north," said Charlie Johnson, 64, an Alaskan Nupiak
from Nome, in the state's far west. "In the Bering Sea the ice leaves earlier
and earlier. On the north slope, the ice is retreating as far as 300 or 400
Last year, hunters found half a dozen bears that had drowned about 200 miles
north of Barrow, on Alaska's northern coast. "It seems they had tried to
swim for shore ... A polar bear might be able to swim 100 miles but not 400."
His alarming testimony, given at a conference on global warming and native
communities held in the Alaskan capital, Anchorage, last week, is just one story
of the many changes happening across the globe. Climate change threatens the
survival of thousands of species - a threat unparalleled since the last ice
age, which ended some 10,000 years ago.
The vast majority, scientists will warn this week, are migratory animals -
sperm whales, polar bears, gazelles, garden birds and turtles - whose survival
depends on the intricate web of habitats, food supplies and weather conditions
which, for some species, can stretch for 6,500 miles. Every link of that chain
is slowly but perceptibly altering.
Europe's most senior ecologists and conservationists are meeting in Aviemore,
in the Scottish Highlands, this week for a conference on the impact of climate
change on migratory species, an event organised by the British government as
part of its presidency of the European Union. It is a well-chosen location.
Aviemore's major winter employer - skiing - is a victim of warmer winters. Ski
slopes in the Cairngorms, which once had snow caps year round on the highest
peaks, have recently been closed down when the winter snow failed. The snow
bunting, ptarmigan and dotterel - some of Scotland's rarest birds - are also
given little chance of survival as their harsh and marginal winter environments
A report being presented this week in Aviemore reveals this is a pattern being
repeated around the world. In the sub-Arctic tundra,caribou are threatened by
"multiple climate change impacts". Deeper snow at higher latitudes
makes it harder for caribou herds to travel. Faster and more regular "freeze-thaw"
cycles make it harder to dig out food under thick crusts of ice-covered snow.
Wetter and warmer winters are cutting calving success, and increasing insect
attacks and disease.
The same holds true for migratory wading birds such as the red knot and the
northern seal. The endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, too, faces extinction,
the report says. They are of "key concern". It says that species "cannot
shift further north as their climates become warmer. They have nowhere left
to go ... We can see, very clearly, that most migratory species are drifting
towards the poles."
The report, passed to The Independent on Sunday, and commissioned by the Department
for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), makes gloomy predictions
about the world's animal populations. "The habitats of migratory species
most vulnerable to climate change were found to be tundra, cloud forest, sea
ice and low-lying coastal areas," it states. "Increased droughts and
lowered water tables, particularly in key areas used as 'staging posts' on migration,
were also identified as key threats stemming from climate change."
Some of itsfindings include:
Four out of five migratory birds listed by the UN face problems ranging
from lower water tables to increased droughts, spreading deserts and shifting
food supplies in their crucial "fuelling stations" as they migrate.
One-third of turtle nesting sites in the Caribbean - home to diminishing
numbers of green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles - would be swamped by a
sea level rise of 50cm (20ins). This will "drastically" hit their
numbers. At the same time, shallow waters used by the endangered Mediterranean
monk seal, dolphins, dugongs and manatees will slowly disappear.
Whales, salmon, cod, penguins and kittiwakes are affected by shifts
in distribution and abundance of krill and plankton, which has "declined
in places to a hundredth or thousandth of former numbers because of warmer
Increased dam building, a response to water shortages and growing
demand, is affecting the natural migration patterns of tucuxi, South American
river dolphins, "with potentially damaging results".
Fewer chiffchaffs, blackbirds, robins and song thrushes are migrating
from the UK due to warmer winters. Egg-laying is also getting two to three
weeks earlier than 30 years ago, showing a change in the birds' biological
The science magazine Nature predicted last year that up to 37 per cent of terrestrial
species could become extinct by 2050. And the Defra report presents more problems
than solutions. Tackling these crises will be far more complicated than just
building more nature reserves - a problem that Jim Knight, the nature conservation
A key issue in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is profound poverty. After
visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo last month, Mr Knight found it
difficult to condemn local people eating gorillas, already endangered. "You
can't blame an individual who doesn't know how they're going to feed their family
every day from harvesting what's around them. That's a real challenge,"
And the clash between nature and human need - a critical issue across Africa
- is likely to worsen. As its savannah and forests begin shifting south, migratory
animals will shift along with them. Some of the continent's major national parks
and reserves - such as the Masai-Mara or Serengeti - may also have to move their
boundaries if their game species, the elephant and wildebeest, are to be properly
protected. This will bring conflict with local communities.
There is also a gap in scientific knowledge between what has been discovered
about the impact of climate change in the industrialised world and in less developed
countries. Similarly, fisheries experts know more about species such as cod
and haddock, than they do about fish humans don't eat.
Many environmentalists are pessimistic about the prospects of halting, let
alone reversing, this trend. "Are we fighting a losing battle? Yes, we
probably are," one naturalist told the IoS last month.
The UK, which is attempting to put climate change at the top of the global
agenda during its presidency of the G8 group of industrialised nations, is still
struggling to persuade the American, Japanese and Australian governments to
admit that mankind's gas emissions are the biggest threat. These three continue
to insist there is no proof that climate change is largely manmade.
And many British environmentalists suspect that Tony Blair's public commitment
to a tougher global treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at a 60 per
cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, is not being backed up by the
Government in private.
Despite President George Bush's resistance to a new global climate treaty,
many US states are being far more radical. Even the G8 communiqué after
the Gleneagles summit in July had Mr Bush confirming that the climate was warming.
In Alaska last week, satellite images released by two US universities and the
space agency Nasa revealed that the amount of sea-ice cover over the polar ice
cap has fallen for the past four years. "A long-term decline is under way,"
said Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Centre.
The Arctic's native communities don't need satellite images to tell them this.
John Keogak, 47, an Inuvialuit from Canada's North-West Territories, hunts polar
bears, seals, caribou and musk ox. "The polar bear is part of our culture,"
he said. "They use the ice as a hunting ground for the seals. If there
is no ice there is no way the bears will be able to catch the seals." He
said the number of bears was decreasing and feared his children might not be
able to hunt them. He said: "There is an earlier break-up of ice, a later
freeze-up. Now it's more rapid. Something is happening."
And now, said Mr Keogak, there was evidence that polar bears are facing an
unusual competitor - the grizzly bear. As the sub-Arctic tundra and wastelands
thaw, the grizzly is moving north, colonising areas where they were previously
unable to survive. Life for Alaska's polar bears is rapidly becoming very precarious.
Vanishing from the earth
Already listed as "critically endangered", only about 700 mountain
gorillas, including the distinctively marked adult male silverbacks, migrate
within the cloud forests of the volcanic Virunga mountains of the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. After a century of human persecution
it faced extinction. Now its unique but marginal mountain forests - already
heavily reduced by forestry - are shrinking, because of climate change. It will
be forced to climb higher for cooler climates, but will effectively run out
Across Africa, habitats are shifting as temperatures rise, or disappearing
in droughts, affecting the migrations of millions of wildebeest, and savannah
elephant and Thomson's gazelle. This will hit game reserves and national parks
- forcing many to move their boundaries.
The number of male green turtles is falling because of rising temperatures,
threatening their survival. Turtle nests need a temperature of precisely 28.8C
to hatch even numbers of males and females. On Ascension Island, where nest
temperatures are up 0.5C,females now outnumber males three to one. On Antigua
too, nest temperatures for hawkbill turtles are higher than the ideal incubation
level. Hatchling survival rates are also cut by higher temperatures. Egg-laying
beaches for all species of turtle are being lost to rising sea levels. A third
of nesting beaches in the Caribbean would be lost by a 50cm rise in sea level.
This rare antelope, thought to be half-way between an antelope and a sheep,
and found in Russia and Mongolia, is "critically endangered". Hunted
heavily, its autumn migration to escape bitter weather and spring migration
to find water and food are being hit by unusual weather cycles. The antelope
will be forced by climate instability to find new grazing areas, coming intoconflict
with humans. Bad years can cut its numbers by 50 per cent, because of high mortality
and poor birth rates.
The migration of the sperm whale, one of the earth's largest mammals, made
famous by Herman Melville's epic Moby-Dick, is closely linked to the squid,
its main food source. Squid numbers are affected by warmer water and weather
phenomena such as El Niño. Adult male sperm whales up to 20m long like
cold water in the disappearing ice-packs. Warm water cuts sperm whale reproduction
because food supplies fall. Around the Galapagos Islands, a fall in births is
linked to higher sea surface temperatures. Plankton and krill, key foods for
many cetaceans such as the pilot whale, have in some regions declined 100-fold
in warmer water.