What does global warming have to do with the decline in the polar bear population?

Polar Bear Extinction?

Conservationists hope the sun won't set on such a powerful and beautiful animal.
Conservationists hope the sun won't set on such a powerful and beautiful animal.
Joanna McCarthy/ The Image Bank/Getty Images

One of the world's 19 polar bear populations lives in Hudson Bay, Canada. In a Washington Post article, Dr. Ian Stirling of the Canadian Wildlife Service says that the ice sheets in that region are starting to crumble two and a half weeks earlier in the season than they did 30 years ago [source: Washington Post]. In the same article, the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) lead scientist, Lara Hansen, predicts that dramatic weight loss and continued ice melt could make female polar bears in that region infertile by 2012. In an interview with the British Daily Mail, Stirling reports that female polar bears almost never give birth to more than one cub now. The possibility of extinction is very real [source: Daily Mail].

But scientists haven't given up on polar bears. An innovative program called Warm Waters for Cool Bears is trying a new approach to conserving the species. Typically, researchers have tracked the bears to see where they're living and where they're moving to better focus conservation efforts. But this approach isn't working well enough, or quickly enough. Warm Waters for Cool Bears tackles the problem from the other end -- tracking the habitats instead of the bears. Using several decades of satellite imagery and meteorological data, researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society are trying to determine which polar ice caps have the best chance of surviving the warming trend. Efforts to save the polar bear populations living in those areas will then receive the greatest attention, since those conservation efforts are the most likely to succeed.

In 2007, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed a proposal to the U.S. government for polar bears to be classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This would give the bears increased protection under the law. As of March 2008, the Bush administration has delayed its ruling. In the meantime, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts a loss of two-thirds of the current polar bear population by 2060 if melting trends continue.

Polar bears aren't the only ones in danger. Their prey is also being wiped out by global warming -- putting polar bears at greater risk of starving. The WWF announced in March 2008 that 1,500 newborn seals in the Arctic Circle are unlikely to survive their first few months. For about a month after they're born, seal cubs live burrowed in the ice as their bodies develop the fat layers that let them survive the frigid water. With the ice melting too quickly, many of the cubs will find themselves in the water before they're ready. Like the polar bear population, Arctic seal numbers have dwindled drastically in the last century, shrinking from 180,000 to about 8,500 [source: Yahoo News].

With both polar bears and seals dying from starvation and drowning in record numbers, the animal life at the Arctic Circle could be changed forever.

For more information on polar bears, baby seals and global warming, look over the links below.

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  • Carlton, Jim. Is Global Warming Killing the Polar Bears? The Wall Street Journal. December 15, 2005. http://online.wsj.com/public/article_print/SB113452435089621905-vnekw47PQGtDyf3iv5XEN71_o5I_20061214.html
  • Eilperin, Juliet. Study Says Polar Bears Could Face Extinction. The Washington Post. November 9, 2004. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35233-2004Nov8.html
  • Mouland, Bill. Global warming sees polar bears stranded on melting ice. The Daily Mail. February 1, 2007. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_ id=433170&in_page_id=1770
  • Polar Bears and Global Warming. National Wildlife Federation. http://www.nwf.org/polarbearsandglobalwarming/
  • Polar Bear Population Predicted To Dwindle With Retreating Ice. Science Daily. September 8, 2007. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070907224237.htm
  • Seal cubs threatened by global warming, WWF warns. Yahoo! News (AFP). March 10, 2008. http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20080310/sc_afp/germanyclimatewarming
  • US-Russia Polar Bear Treaty Ratified. ScienceDaily. October 18, 2007. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071014202952.htm
  • Want To Save Polar Bears? Follow the Ice. ScienceDaily. June 1, 2007. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070531095420.htm