No Safe Haven for Polar Bears in Warming Arctic
By Tim Radford
The world of the polar bear is shrinking—everywhere. New research by scientists in the U.S. confirms that each of the 19 known populations of Ursus maritimus is increasingly affected by the earlier sea ice melt in the Arctic spring, and the later arrival of ice every autumn.
Polar bears are affected by the earlier sea ice melt in the Arctic spring.Alamy
The finding is hardly a shock, as there have been warnings from conservationists about such things for years, with the polar bear becoming an icon of climate change concerns. And in most cases of species threat there are winners as well as losers.
The 25,000 or so surviving Arctic bears rely on the ice for their feeding and breeding success. A few stay on the ice all year round, but southerly populations survive ashore in the summer, and it is the seasonal winter feast upon seals and other sea mammals that gives them the nourishment to make it to the next breeding season.
Hungry Polar Bears Trap Scientists Inside Arctic Weather Station https://t.co/TRBKP0loaC @audubonsociety @Sierra_Club— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1473979808.0
"Sea ice really is their platform for life," said Kristin Laidre, principal scientist at the University of Washington's Polar Science Centre (PSC). "They are capable of existing on land for part of the year, but the sea ice is where they obtain their main prey."
She and her co-author, Harry Stern, principal mathematician at the PSC, used 35 years of satellite data to examine sea ice concentrations around the entire Arctic.
The total number of ice-covered days fell at the rate of seven to 19 days per decade between 1979 and 2014. Sea ice in the summer months—when polar bears are often forced to fast on land—also declined in all regions, by between 1 percent and 9 percent per decade.
And they found that the trend towards an earlier spring melt and a later autumn freeze was consistent everywhere.
Dr. Laidre and other scientists reported last year that all Arctic marine mammals could be at risk because of habitat loss. The catch was that biologists did not know enough about them to be sure.
RT @alaskawild Victory #Alaska polar bears win their day in court https://t.co/2IPQNuvxq3 @ecowatch #ActOnClimate https://t.co/OOoJRGa3VM— USCAN (@USCAN)1457189705.0
Another group of researchers has established that things look bleak for Canada's polar bears, but this is just a subset of the species.
The PSC scientists have now established that spring melt has begun on average three to nine days earlier per decade, and the freeze similarly later each decade. Effectively, that added up to seven weeks' total loss of good habitat—that is, firm ice upon which the bears can stalk seals.
"These spring and fall transitions bound the period when there is good ice habitat available for bears to feed," Dr Laidre said. "Those periods are also tied to the breeding season, when bears find mates, and when females come out of their maternity dens with very small cubs and haven't eaten for months.
"We expect that if the trends continue, compared with today, polar bears will experience another six to seven weeks of ice-free periods by mid-century."
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.