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Charismatic bears on thin ice

As the Arctic heats up sooner than scientists anticipated, animals like the polar bear are losing ground.

By / September 13, 2007

For most people, the likelihood of climate change making a big difference in their lives still seems largely theoretical. But throw in the prospect that global warming may mean curtains for some of humankind's favorite other species – "charismatic megafauna," they're sometimes called – and the issue gains additional urgency.

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The US Geological Survey (USGS) reports that two-thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear by mid-century as Arctic sea ice continues to melt due to unusually warm temperatures.

"The new findings paint a sobering picture ' reports National Geographic News. 'Our results have demonstrated that as the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear," said Steven Amstrup, a USGS wildlife research biologist in Anchorage, Alaska, and leader of the polar bear studies. The rapid movement of sea ice could leave bears stranded in food-poor areas, or it might require them to make long and exhausting swims from food-rich areas back to the ice, Dr. Amstrup says.

This year has already broken the 2005 record for the lowest amount of Arctic sea ice ever recorded. In one week's time, reports ABC News, "an area of Arctic sea ice the size of Florida has melted away."

Says scientist Mark Serreze, a polar ice expert at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.:

"If you had asked me a few years ago about how fast the Arctic would be ice free in summer, I would have said somewhere between about 2070 and the turn of the century.... My view has changed. I think that an ice-free Arctic as early as 2030 is not unreasonable."

The USGS study was ordered up by US Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to help scientists and officials decide whether polar bears should be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing the bear as "threatened" under the ESA. That decision is to be made in January.

The news from the latest research is not encouraging, according to the USGS.

"Projected changes in future sea ice conditions, if realized, will result in loss of approximately 2/3rds of the world's current polar bear population by the mid 21st century."