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For Immediate Release, August 21, 2008

Contact: Kassie Siegel, Center for Biological Diversity, (951) 961-7972,

Polar Bears at Risk of Drowning in the Chukchi Sea;
Surveys Show Numerous Bears Swimming Far From
Land as Sea Ice Nears Record Low

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Recent government surveys document that polar bears are at risk of drowning in large numbers off the northern coast of Alaska as sea ice once again approaches record low levels.

On August 16th, surveys documented nine polar bears swimming in open water off the northwestern coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea, in an area recently opened for offshore oil exploration. One bear was more than 50 miles from land. Surveys in the same area were not possible the following day, due to high seas. A shorter survey in adjacent areas on August 18th documented one swimming bear. While polar bears are excellent swimmers, they are at increased risk of drowning in stormy conditions when swimming in open water far from the land or ice.

The first and only documented mass polar bear drowning event was recorded in 2004, when researchers with the U.S. Minerals Management Service discovered the carcasses of four bears that had drowned in the Beaufort Sea during a period of high winds and rough seas between September 10 and 13, 2004. Because the scientists were able to observe only a relatively small area during their aerial surveys, they estimated that up to 27 bears may have died during this time. The researchers warned that polar bear drownings may be a more serious threat to polar bear populations overall than previously understood and may increase as global warming continues to melt the sea ice.

In the rule listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that more polar bear drownings were likely to occur: “As changes in habitat become more severe and seasonal rates of change more rapid, catastrophic mortality events that have yet to be realized on a large scale are expected to occur.” The highly unusual observation this week of so many bears in open water is cause for concern that such events are already occurring. The surveys covered only a small fraction of polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea, raising the specter of many more bears being similarly stranded.

“The impact of global warming is brutal and tragic for polar bears,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the 2005 petition to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. “The only way to limit the number of bears that will drown and starve is to reduce greenhouse gas pollution immediately, but we must act immediately.”

Arctic summer sea ice has shrunk dramatically in recent years, leaving polar bears to contend with unprecedented distances between the land and ice edge. Polar bears need the sea ice as a platform to hunt seals, which are primarily found over the productive, shallow waters of the continental shelf. In recent summers, polar bears have been faced with the choice of staying with the pack ice as it retreats hundreds of miles offshore or remaining on land where they cannot hunt seals. The increased distance between land and the ice edge has also led to more polar bears swimming in open water. According to data available from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the main body of the pack ice is currently approximately 300 miles or more off the north coast of Alaska.

In September 2007, the Arctic sea ice hit a new record minimum fully 1 million square miles lower than the average minimum sea-ice extent between 1979 and 2000. There was less ice in the Arctic in September 2007 than more than half of leading climate models project for 2050. This summer, the sea-ice retreat is also extreme and may surpass last summer’s record.

As the Arctic warms, the sea ice has also thinned dramatically, leading to faster melting and larger ice-free areas in the summer. Some leading researchers now predict that the Arctic could be ice free in summer as early as 2012.

The polar bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act on May 15. The state of Alaska filed suit on August 4th to overturn the listing. The Bush administration, which has opposed all mandatory regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, is currently proposing to modify the Endangered Species Act to exempt federal agencies from their duty to analyze the effect of greenhouse gas emission on the polar bear and other listed species.

“It is just amazing that while polar bears are fighting for their lives, the governor of Alaska is spending the state’s money trying to overturn protection for the species, and Congress is talking about opening new areas to oil development,” said Siegel. “People who care for polar bears must demand that our elected officials stop this nonsense and get serious about reducing greenhouse emissions. We must protect polar bear habitat, not open it up to oil leasing.”

The government survey data is available at

Current sea ice data is available at

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The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 180,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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