Imagine Christmas without reindeer: We might someday have to do just that. But there’s good news on the extinction front as well: Polar bears were added to the threatened species list nearly three years ago as their icy habitat showed steady, precipitous decline because of a warming climate. But it appears the Arctic icons aren’t necessarily doomed after all. Conservation scientist Jeff Wells warns that caribou (that’s reindeer) thrive in cold climates. They are tough, adaptable creatures that can survive in winter by eating only lichens. But when the health of their habitats are threatened, so too is the health of the herd.
In Ontario the species range has retracted at a rate of two miles a year, resulting in the loss of half of the province’s woodland caribou range. 60% has been lost in Alberta, and 40% in British Columbia. More recently, massive declines in the numbers of the barren-ground, long-distance migratory caribou have been recorded, with some herds dropping as much as 90%. One herd went from an estimated 472,000 in 1986 to 128,000 by 2006.
Scientists from several institutions, including the US Geological Survey, have found that if humans reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly in the next decade or two, enough Arctic ice is likely to remain intact during late summer and early autumn for polar bears to survive. Researcher Steven Amstrup says, "What we projected in 2007 was based solely on the business-as-usual greenhouse gas scenario. That was a pretty dire outlook, but it didn’t consider the possibility of greenhouse gas mitigation." That study projected that only about one-third of the world’s 22,000 polar bears might be left by mid-century if the dramatic Arctic ice decline continued, and that eventually they could disappear completely. The work led to the 2008 listing of polar bears as a threatened species.
But new research indicates there is no "tipping point" that would result in unstoppable loss of summer sea ice when greenhouse gas-driven warming rose above a certain threshold. Researcher Cecilia Bitz is relieved but still cautious, and says, "Our research offers a very promising, hopeful message, but it’s also an incentive for mitigating greenhouse emissions."
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