11/9/2010 1:24:50 PM

Too Warm: Above Zero and Raining

For about a month prior to leaving my home in the California desert for my third visit to Wapusk National Park just outside Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, I checked the weather report nearly every day, waiting for the temperature to drop enough to initiate freeze-up of the sea ice. Every day I checked, I anticipated the arrival of deep cold, yet each week it failed to arrive. When I left for Churchill, rather than snow and ice, it was still above zero and raining.

Mom with two cubs

Now that I'm here, the difference this year from years past is even more dramatic than I had imagined when reading the weather forecasts. The tundra is mostly bare of snow, creeks are flowing, and Hudson Bay is open water with no sea ice in sight. Rain, with temperatures well above freezing is forecast for tomorrow and the next day. Relief for the bears isn't anywhere in sight.

Mother and cub waiting for freeze-up

Last year the bears went back on the ice much later than they should—around the second week in December—and the remarkable warmth this fall makes an even later freeze up this year seem increasingly likely. Combined with this spring's early break-up, with bears coming off the ice in June and July, the situation could be critical. For the polar bears of Hudson Bay, global warming is not just a future threat: it's a crisis they're already facing.

This balmy fall in Western Hudson Bay is part of an accelerating warming trend throughout the Far North (and everywhere else on the planet) caused by global warming. As the sea ice season has shrunk, the polar bear population here has fallen. By 2004, the Western Hudson Bay population had already declined by 22% from what it was 15 years previously, and there is no sign that the decline has not continued in the years since 2004. If warming trends continue, the population here will be functionally extinct within a couple decades. And the lack of ice this year makes two decades seem wildly optimistic.

Three bears

Hudson Bay's polar bears are on the front lines of global warming, but the rest of the world's polar bears are facing a similar fate, with eight of the world's 19 polar bear populations already declining (and others of unknown but likely similar status). Ultimately to save polar bears, above all else, we have to dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions. I'll write more on the how and the how much of that in a later post.

While addressing greenhouse emissions is critical to polar bear's fate, given the rocky future they have even in the most optimistic scenarios, it is also extremely important to fully protect polar bears under existing wildlife law. That is a goal I've been working towards since I wrote a petition in 2005 to protect polar bears under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2008, after several lawsuits, the U.S. listed the bear as threatened, which was an important victory but less than the endangered status we had sought, which provides a higher level of protection.

Two bears on tundra

We've been fighting in court for full protection, and received an important ruling last week which requires the U.S. Interior Department to explain its reasoning for rejecting endangered status for the bear by December 23rd of this year. This gives us just a short few weeks to convince the government to acknowledge the rapid warming of the Arctic that's underway right now, and the urgency and magnitude of the polar bear's peril. More information, including how to send a letter requesting full endangered status for the polar bear, is available here.

I want more than anything to live in a world where polar bears still roam, and where others will have the chance to see them as well. I don't think I will ever be able to describe the wonder and excitement one feels when watching a polar bear in the wild. While bear numbers here are down this year—we saw just four today, when a year ago we would see a dozen or more each day—each encounter is still magical and inspiring. With action and commitment we can still turn things around fast enough to prevent the extinction of polar bears.

Photo Credits: ©Shari Burnett.

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