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Climate scientists spotlight Arctic warming, plight of polar bears

20.06.2006
Public comment period on threatened species listing ends June 16
A climate scientist at the University of Chicago and 30 of her colleagues from across North America and Europe are urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as a threatened species because global warming is melting its sea-ice habitat.

"As scientists engaged in research on climate change, we are deeply concerned about the effect of Arctic warming on the polar bear habitat," said a letter submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service on June 15. "Biologists have determined that sea-ice is critical in the life cycle of the polar bear and the survival of the polar bear as a species.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to list a species for protection if it is in danger of extinction or threatened by possible extinction in all or a significant portion of its range. The ongoing and projected increased loss of sea-ice in the warming Arctic poses a significant threat to the polar bear."

The letter was not a petition, said Pamela Martin, Assistant Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, who organized the effort. "Rather, it was a letter summarizing some key aspects of the best available science on global warming and, in particular, Arctic warming.

"The polar bear listing petition is really illustrative of the challenge in addressing many environmental problems facing us as a global community. These problems don't fit squarely within a single scientific discipline--they not only require scientists to talk across disciplines, such as the geophysical and biological sciences as in the case of the polar bear, but also across the larger divide that separates scientists from policy makers."

The non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Ariz., filed a scientific petition with the Fish and Wildlife Service on Feb. 16, 2005, to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In February 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would initiate a status review of the polar bear to determine if the species should be proposed for listing. A 60-day public comment period, later extended, also began on Feb. 9.

Martin wrote and circulated the letter with the help of four colleagues in the University of Chicago Department of Geophysical Sciences: Gidon Eshel, Assistant Professor; David Archer, Professor; Douglas MacAyeal, Professor; and Ray Pierrehumbert, Louis Block Professor.

"Unlike many letters that circulate, this one did not circulate with the names of the signers," Martin said. "Thus, with the exception of the names of my colleagues from this institution, the scientists signed it blind with respect to other signators."

The letter states that "the best available observations demonstrate that Arctic warming is rapid, persistent, and widespread," and that only a reduction of technologically generated greenhouse gases can prevent further Arctic warming and sea-ice melting. The scientists summarized multiple lines of evidence that point to global warming trends, especially in the Arctic:

  • An increase in surface temperatures of nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit since the late 19th century
  • Warming of the world's oceans over the last 50 years
  • Thawing of the northern high latitude permafrost (ground that was formerly frozen year-round)
  • Increased evaporation over the tropics and subtropics
  • An increase in the rate of sea-level rise

"In the Arctic, evidence from satellite data, submarine data, and oceanographic field observations reveal the diminished areal extent, shorter seasonal duration, and extensive thinning of sea ice," the letter said. "Summer sea ice cover in the Arctic has already been reduced in areal extent by 10-20 percent over the last 30 years."

The Arctic region is especially sensitive to global warming because of the reflectivity of ice and cloud cover, the scientists said. Despite slight cooling in some pockets of the Artic, overall the region has experienced substantial warming. Records show that average annual temperatures are 3.5 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in Alaska and Siberia. Siberian winters and temperatures in the western Canadian Arctic, meanwhile, are 7 degrees warmer than before, the letter said.

The scientists also cited the 2001 Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Pierrehumbert served as lead author of this report, which involved the participation of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries. "The IPCC report concluded that the observed global climate changes cannot be accounted for by natural climate forcings alone;" said the scientists in their letter.

Additional research conducted since 2001 has strengthened the IPCC's findings, according to Martin and her colleagues. "In 2005, the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum with members from eight nations, including the United States, referenced the findings of the IPCC Third Assessment Report in their Arctic Climate Assessment and added that 'there is new and strong evidence that in the Arctic much of the observed warming over this period [the last 50 years] is also due to human activities."

Taking into account increasing temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide, along with fundamental climate theory, the scientists observe that global surface temperature is currently unstable, or, in scientific terms, "not in a steady state," nor will it be for years to come. The planet is, as a result, committed to a continued trend in global warming for centuries to come, according to the scientists.

"Immediate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions well beyond those that may be considered by some measures 'sustainable' emissions rates are therefore imperative. We urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to acknowledge the threat of Arctic warming on the Polar Bear."

Steve Koppes | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.uchicago.edu

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