No. 367, January 24, 2006


JOIN THE VIRTUAL MARCH AGAINST GLOBAL WARMING - Help protect polar bears, corals, seabirds, and other species threatened by climate change








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JOIN THE VIRTUAL MARCH AGAINST GLOBAL WARMING - Help protect polar bears, corals, seabirds, and other species threatened by climate change

The Center has joined the Virtual March against global warming to help build political momentum to enact policies for major greenhouse gas reductions. Thus far more than one quarter of a million people are marching through the Virtual March Web site.

Please take a moment now to join the march and learn more by clicking here:




Global warming is emerging as one of the greatest threats to the planet’s biological diversity. The Center is working hard to protect some of the first species to be threatened with extinction due to climate change. Recently we have taken action to protect polar bears, coral reefs, and the Kittlitz’s murrelet, a rare seabird.



Polar bears are threatened by global warming because rising temperatures are causing the rapid melting of their sea-ice habitat. The polar bear is the Arctic's top predator and is the largest of the four currently recognized species of bear in the genus Ursus. Polar bears live only in areas where there is sea ice for a substantial portion of the year and are completely dependent upon sea ice habitat for all of their essential behaviors, including mating, traveling, and hunting and feeding upon ringed seals, their primary prey. Some polar bears even give birth to their cubs in snow dens on top of drifting sea ice. Yet their Arctic sea ice habitat is fast disappearing, threatening polar bears with extinction.

The Arctic has experienced earlier and more rapid warming that any place else on the globe, and temperatures in parts of Alaska have already risen more than 5° Fahrenheit in the past century and may rise 18° Fahrenheit or more in the next. Polar bear populations are already in decline in some areas and cannot survive the complete loss of summer sea ice, which scientists now believe may occur well before the end of this century.

On December 15, 2005 the Center, along with our partners Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, filed suit against Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force the Bush administration to respond to our petition to list polar bears under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA requires the administration to respond to the petition within 90 days of its filing. The Center filed the petition in February 2005 but has to date received no response from the administration.

Further details on the polar bear and the Center's campaign to protect it can be found on the Center's polar bear webpage.


In response to a 2004 petition from the Center, the National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed to list two species of Caribbean corals, the staghorn and elkhorn corals, as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. These species, which occur in Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, have declined by over 90 percent in many areas. The elkhorn and staghorn corals were until recently the dominant reef-building species in the Caribbean.

In the face of elevated ocean temperatures, the corals "bleach" by expelling the symbiotic algae that provide them nourishment. Such bleaching events are often fatal, and as they become more frequent with global warming, threaten not just these coral species but the entire reef ecosystem.

Corals face an additional threat from greenhouse gas emissions: increasing levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in the oceans from society's fossil fuel use reduces the rate of calcification corals need for growth.

A final rule to list the corals as threatened species is due May 9, 2006. Once listed, the staghorn and elkhorn corals will be the first species protected under the ESA due to the impacts of global warming.


In 2001, the Center filed its first petition seeking to have a species protected under the Endangered Species Act because of the impacts of global warming. The Kittlitz's murrelet, a small seabird that feeds at the base of tidewater glaciers in parts of Alaska and Russia has declined dramatically in recent years. Scientists believe that the Kittlitz's murrelet's decline is likely linked to global warming. After designating the Kittlitz's murrelet as a Candidate species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took no further action on the petition. 

A Candidate species is one which the agency acknowledges warrants the protections of the ESA, but for which the agency claims it does not have the resources to protect. The Bush administration has placed numerous species in addition to the Kittlitz’s murrelet in this bureaucratic waiting room for which extinction is the only exit. On November 8, 2005, the Center filed suit to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to fully protected the Kittlitz’s murrelet under the ESA, as well as 282 similarly situated species.



This month, a study published in the preeminent scientific journal Nature linked the extinction of dozens of amphibian species in Central and South America to global warming.  The study shows how climate change has contributed to ideal conditions for growth of the chytrid fungus, a disease which kills frogs by growing on their skin and attacking their epidermis and teeth, as well as by releasing a toxin.  Seventy-four of the 110 species of brightly colored harlequin frogs of the genus Atelopus have disappeared in the past 20 years due to spread of the fungus. 

The significance of the study is that global warming is not some future theoretical threat to Earth's biodiversity, but rather is already responsible for one of the largest vertebrate extinction events in the past 100 years.  Harlequin frogs may be among the first modern extinctions linked to global warming, but unfortunately, absent major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions they will not be the last.  A study published in 2004 in the journal Nature projected that approximately 35 percent of species could be committed to extinction by 2050 under a high climate-warming scenario, and that even under a minimal climate-warming scenario, the percentage of species committed to extinction is still 18 percent.

New research published since the Center submitted a petition to protect the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act has reinforced predictions of the impacts of global warming on the bear's Arctic habitat.  New findings show that the Arctic may already be on a trajectory towards a summer ice-free, "super interglacial" state that has not existed for at least a million years.   There appear to be no feedback processes in the Arctic system capable of altering this trajectory towards dramatically less permanent ice than at present.  Large decreases in winter sea-ice extent in the Arctic have also been documented.  The wintertime trend alone is now approaching sea ice reductions of 3 percent per decade.  In addition, a new record minimum sea-ice extent was recorded in September 2005, further supporting the conclusion that Arctic sea ice is likely on an accelerating, long-term decline.  The continuation of current rates of decline would leave the Arctic ice-free in the summertime well before the end of this century.

And as with the extinction of the harlequin frogs, the impacts of global warming on the polar bear are not limited to projections for the future; these impacts have arrived and are already affecting individuals and populations.  A study released in 2005 by the U.S. Minerals Management Service shows that reduced sea ice is increasing polar bear drowning deaths. Researchers documented the drowning deaths of at least four polar bears in September 2004, when the sea ice was a record 160 miles off the north coast of Alaska.  As the survey covered only 10 percent of the area, the number of actual polar bear deaths may be an order of magnitude higher.  Other research has documented population level effects of global warming on polar bears, with the Western Hudson Bay population in Canada declining by approximately 14 percent since 1995.

Stunning research results like these, as well as in other areas – such as the impact global warming on human health and the economy – are garnering increasing media attention, and awareness of the magnitude of the global warming threat is growing.  The Center's work to protect polar bears has been featured in the local and national television and print media and is contributing to this growing awareness.  The Center's Climate, Air and Energy program will work hard to make 2006 a watershed year in which this dawning awareness is translated into meaningful action to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientific Articles Mentioned:

Meier, W., J. et al.  2005.  Reductions in arctic sea ice cover no longer limited to summer.  Eos Vol. 86, No. 36: 326-237.

Monnett, C., et al.  2005.  Potential effects of diminished sea ice on open-water swimming, mortality, and distribution of polar bears during fall in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea.  Scientific Poster presented at the Society for Marine Mammalogy 16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, December 12-16, 2005.

National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).  2005.  Sea ice decline intensifies.  Joint press release from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, NASA, and the University of Washington.  Boulder, CO.  September 28, 2005.

Overpeck, J.T., et al.  2005.  Arctic system on trajectory to new, seasonally ice-free state.  Eos Vol. 86, No. 34:309-316.

Polar Bear Specialist Group ("PBSG").  2005.  PRESS RELEASE.  14th Meeting of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group.  Seattle, Washington, USA.

Pounds, J.A., et al.  2006. Widespread amphibian extinctions from epidemic disease driven by global warming    Nature 439: 161-167.  January 12, 2006.

Thomas, C.D. et al. 2004.  Extinction risk from climate change.  Nature 427:145-148.  January 8, 2004.

Learn more about how the Center works to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and protect species from global warming on the Center's Climate, Air, and Energy homepage.


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