Is the Polar Bear Global Warming’s Canary in a Coalmine?

Polar bears may be extinct by 2050 due to melting sea ice.© US Fish & Wildlife

The accelerating effects of global warming—which are rapidly melting Arctic sea ice—have forced scientists to conclude that polar bears will be extinct in the U.S. by 2050.

"There is a definite link between changes in the sea ice and the welfare of polar bears," says U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Steven Amstrup, who helped coordinate the research. "As the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear," he said, adding that 84 percent of the scientific variables affecting the polar bear’s fate were tied to changes in sea ice.

Over the last two years, 350,000 square miles of Arctic sea ice has melted as a result of our warming climate. The National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that this year’s reading—Arctic sea ice covering 1.7 million square miles—represents a new record low (the 2005 reading, at 2.05 million square miles, was the previous record low).

"This grim news about polar bears and sea ice decline is horrifying, but it is a call to action, not despair," said Kassie Siegel of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). "The good news is that there is still time to save polar bears. Our hope lies in a rapid response, including both deep and immediate carbon dioxide reductions and a full-court press on other greenhouse pollutants such as methane."

CBD is mobilizing sympathizers to tell Congress and the White House to grant polar bears the fullest protection under the law through the mandates of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists hope to use that designation as leverage to force the government to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

But some sympathetic political insiders are not optimistic, especially in the face of continued resistance from the Bush administration. "This is becoming a tragic metaphor for the administration’s voluntary approach to global warming," said U.S. Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "Instead of meeting the challenge, the Bush administration is happy to float along, waiting to see if the planet, and polar bears, will sink or swim."

Another member of the same House committee, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA), considers the loss of polar bears to be a "canary in the coal mine" signaling the need for stronger action on mitigating global warming.

Environmentalists have mustered 600,000 or so public comments from constituents to elected officials. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne is expected to announce his decision on how and if to list polar bears under the Endangered Species Act (a "threatened" listing would not carry the same weight as "endangered" status) this coming January.

Sources: MSNBC; Center for Biological Diversity