16 May Gland, Switzerland - One hundred days before world leaders meet in Johannesburg to discuss environment and sustainable development, a new study from WWF, the conservation organisation shows that global warming threatens to destroy important polar bear habitat.
The report Polar Bears at Risk reviews the threats faced by the world's 22,000 polar bears and highlights that climate change is the number one long-term threat to the survival of the world's largest terrestrial carnivores. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that climate change in the polar region is expected to be the greatest of anywhere on Earth. The WWF report finds that there is evidence that global warming is already affecting the condition of polar bears in the Hudson Bay in Canada. Canada - home to 60 per cent of all the world's polar bears - is one of the leading global warming polluters currently dithering on ratifying the Kyoto climate treaty.
"The WWF report shows that polar bears in Hudson Bay are being impacted by climate change," said Lynn Rosentrater, co-author of the report and Climate Change Officer at WWF's Arctic Programme. "As sea ice is being reduced in the area, the polar bear's basis for survival is being threatened. The sea ice is melting earlier in the spring which is sending the polar bars to land earlier without them having developed as much fat reserves for the ice free season. By the end of the summer they are skinny bears, which in the worst case can affect their ability to reproduce."
Increasing global warming pollution has caused Arctic temperatures to rise by 5°Celsius over the past 100 years, and the extent of sea ice has decreased by six percent over the past 20 years. Scientists now predict a 60 percent loss of summer sea ice by around 2050, which would more than double the summer ice-free season from 60 to 150 days. Sea ice is critical to polar bears' survival as it is the platform from which they hunt their primary prey, ringed seals and bearded seals. Longer ice-free periods limit the time the bears have on the ice to hunt, and in some areas means that they have fewer fat resources to survive on land during the longer summer season. In addition, lower body weight reduces female bears' ability to lactate, leading to greater mortality among cubs.
The rapid pace of change in the Arctic means there is no time to lose in reducing global warming pollution. Currently, the Kyoto climate treaty is the world's only defence against this problem. Its target of reducing global warming gases from industrialised nations by 5 per cent in the coming decade is the bare minimum if there is to be any chance of halting global warming this century. Though the European Union, Russia and Japan are now moving towards ratification, Canada urgently needs to ratify in time for August's World Summit on Sustainable Development to ensure that the Kyoto treaty becomes international law.
"Arctic nations that are home to most of the world's polar bears should be leading the charge against global warming," said Jennifer Morgan, Director of WWF's Climate Change Programme. "Instead, Canada, Russia and the United States - the largest global warming polluters - are in the camp of those slowest to act on global warming. It is imperative that they all ratify the Kyoto Climate Treaty as soon as possible."
The impacts of global warming come on top of problems that polar bears face from hunting, toxic pollution and future oil developments in the Arctic. In some areas, research on polar bears shows a link between high contaminant levels and reduced immune system function.
WWF today unveils a new website (www.panda.org/polarbears) containing extensive information about polar bears and their Arctic domain. The site includes satellite tracking of two female bears (Louise and Gro) as they roam the ice pack in search of prey.
For further information:
Andrew Kerr, Public Affairs Manager, WWF Climate Change Programme. Tel: +31 6 5161 9462; email: AKerr@wwf.nl
Mitzi Borromeo, Press Officer, WWF International. Tel: +41 22 364 9562; email: MBorromeo@wwfint.org
Julian Woolford, Communications Manager, WWF Arctic Programme. Tel: +47 2 203 6510; email: JWoolford@wwf.no
Notes to editors:
1. Polar Bears at Risk by Stefan Norris, Lynn Rosentrater and Pål Martin Eid. WWF International Arctic Programme. May 2002
2. A PDF version of Polar Bears at Risk is available via www.panda.org
3. Summary report: Vanishing Kingdom - The Disappearing Realm of the Polar Bear by Stefan Norris. WWF International Arctic Programme. May 2002
4. Video footage of polar bear tagging in the Arctic is available from Tanya Petersen, WWF TV Centre.
Tel: +41 22 364 9565