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EXTINCTION: IT’S NOT JUST FOR POLAR BEARS

The consequences of climate change are unfolding far more rapidly and intensely in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world. Soaring temperatures, rapidly melting ice and snow, rising sea levels and acidifying oceans are threatening all Arctic wildlife, from great whales to tiny plankton — not just the iconic polar bear.

A new report from the Center and Care for the Wild International, Extinction: It’s Not Just for Polar Bears, chronicles the most profound climatic changes in the Arctic and documents the impacts those changes are already having on wildlife, with a focus on 17 species at risk. The report concludes with a roadmap of actions needed to preserve the Arctic as we know it today. Because what’s happening in the Arctic is an early example of climate change’s frightening effects on the entire planet, we must protect this region if we want to protect ourselves.

Key findings of the report:

Arctic meltdown: Losing the Arctic as we know it

  • The Arctic has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the globe on average.
  • Summer sea ice fell to a record low in 2007 and has not recovered since.
  • The Greenland ice sheet is rapidly thinning as meltpools and moulins form on its surface and enormous chunks of ice break off its edges.
  • The Arctic Ocean is becoming more acidic as it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which threatens to make conditions unlivable for many shell-building species by 2050.
  • The Arctic plays a critical role in keeping the rest of the planet cool, keeping powerful greenhouse gases locked up in its permafrost layer and driving the circulation of the global ocean; climate change is breaking down the Arctic’s ability to carry out these functions.

Wildlife on the edge: Species being pushed to the brink

  • The report highlights climate change impacts on 17 species: the Arctic fox; polar bear; Pacific walrus; four ice seals (ringed, bearded, harp and ribbon seals); four whales (gray, beluga, bowhead and narwhal); sea butterfly; three seabirds (Kittlitz’s murrelet, spectacled eider and ivory gull); and two terrestrial mammals (caribou/reindeer and muskox). Many species are suffering declines in abundance, and for some, extinction may not be far off.
  • The Arctic fox, which roams across tundra and sea ice, is disappearing from the southern edge of its range. At sea, it faces the loss of sea-ice foraging grounds. On land, it faces the northward retreat of tundra habitat, declines in lemming prey, and increased competition with red foxes, which are moving north as temperatures warm.
  • Ice-dependent marine mammals are suffering die-offs and population declines as they lose the sea-ice habitat they need to give birth, raise young, hunt, rest and hide from predators.
  • Arctic whales are at risk from increasing offshore oil drilling and shipping activity as areas become ice-free, which heightens threats from oil spills, ship strikes and noise.
  • Ocean plankton like the tiny sea butterfly face increasingly hostile conditions from ocean acidification, which inhibits their building of protective shells and skeletons.
  • Seabirds that forage near glaciers and sea ice are losing their feeding grounds and resting places, while thawing permafrost threatens to drain their wetland breeding habitat.
  • Tundra dwellers like the caribou and muskox are being affected by warmer spring       temperatures that alter food abundance, as well as extreme winter weather events leaving dense snow and ice crusts that obstruct their access to food.
  • Climate change is having profound impacts not only on individual species but also on the Arctic ecosystems to which they belong. Entire habitats are vanishing, and ecological communities are being torn apart.

The way forward: A plan to protect the Arctic and the planet

  • It’s still possible to make the changes necessary to slow — and then reverse — warming in the Arctic. The way forward is clearly signposted. If society continues to delay progress, however, the precious window of opportunity we have today will slam shut. Key steps include:
  • Step 1: Reduce carbon dioxide to below 350 parts per million.
  • Step 2: Reduce short-lived greenhouse pollutants, including black carbon, methane and ozone.
  • Step 3: Help Arctic wildlife survive unavoidable climatic changes.
  • Step 4: Take immediate political action at all levels.

Polar bear photo © Jenny E. Ross/ www.jennyross.com