Rapid Arctic Warming Jeopardizes People, Bears, Birds

LONDON, England, February 1, 2005 (ENS) - Global warming will hit the Arctic harder and faster than the rest of the world and could cause the extinction of polar bears and other Arctic wildlife within 20 years, conservationists warn.

"If we don't act immediately the Arctic will soon become unrecognizable," said Tonje Folkestad, climate change officer with WWFs International Arctic Program.

WWF's new study echoes several other recent reports that suggest the Earth will warm by two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels between 2026 and 2060 unless major steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That point would make severe impacts from global warming inevitable, according to WWF, and the Arctic ecosystem will undergo dramatic change.

The Arctic could see temperature increases up to three times that seen by the rest of the planet, according the study commissioned by WWF.

"A very robust result from global climate models is that warming due to greenhouse gases will reduce the amount of snow and ice cover in the Arctic, which will in turn produce an additional warming as more solar radiation is absorbed by the ground and the ocean," said Dr. Mark New of Oxford University, author of one of the four papers that comprise the WWF report.

Ice and snow reflect more solar radiation back to space than unfrozen surfaces. polarbears

Some 22,000 polar bears are believed to remain in the wild, spread across the Arctic. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The WWF report includes analysis that finds summer sea ice is melting a rate of 9.6 percent per decade - putting it on pace to disappear entirely by the end of the century.

The loss of summer sea ice is the primary threat to the polar bear, as well as several species of ice dwelling seals.

The study echoes many of the findings of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) report, a major analysis of climate change's impact on the Arctic compiled an international team of 300 scientists, experts, and indigenous residents of the Arctic region.

The ACIA report warned the Arctic is already warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet.

It reflected the increasing concern of Native Arctic communities about the changes to their environment from warming trends.

Inuit hunters and elders have been observing changes to their environment for decades, including unpredictable weather, melting of permafrost and glaciers, decreasing sea ice, as well as the presence of new species such as barn owls, robins and mosquitoes never seen before by the Inuit people.

"Global warming threatens to wreak havoc on the traditional ways of life of Inuit, putting an end to our hunting and food sharing culture," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, elected chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), another contributor to the WWF report.

The ICC represents represents the 155,000 Inuit in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and the Russian Federation.

Another of the papers in the WWF report warns that boreal forests will spread north and overwhelm up to 60 percent of dwarf shrub tundra, a critical habitat for birds like ravens, snow buntings, falcons, loons, sandpipers, and terns.

The paper said migratory birds will lose a vital breeding ground in the Arctic, affecting biodiversity around the globe. seaice

Satellite imagery confirms that Arctic sea ice continues to decline. (Photo courtesy European Space Agency))
The conservation group will present its report to the participants at a climate change conference that begins today in Exeter, England.

The meeting "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" was set up by the UK government, which aims to make global warming a key topic at this year's meeting of the eight industrialized nations - known as the G8.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair will chair this year's meeting of the G8 and has pledged to make climate change a priority at the meeting.

"This scientific conference will make a valuable contribution to our G8 presidency and our wider aim of reinvigorating the climate change debate," said Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. "We hope it will provide new information on the risks of climate change and provide a firmer basis for discussing long-term action."

Timing is running out for the world to halt global warming, WWF said.

The conservation group said the projected two degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) temperature increase is the tipping point for global warming that must be avoided - a point also made last week by the International Climate Change Task Force.

The members of the G8 should lead the way with a "a commitment to keeping global average temperature below an average of two degrees Celsius and to switching to efficient and renewable energy," said Dr. Catarina Cardoso, WWF-UK program leader on sustainable energy.