Where Polar Bears Might Go If Climate Change Doesn't Slow

One area in the Arctic Ocean may provide a last "refuge" for polar bears.

ByABC News
December 17, 2010, 5:13 PM

Dec. 19, 2010— -- By midcentury, the northern islands of Canada and the north coast of Greenland may represent the only remaining region in the Arctic where polar bears and the marine animals that sustain them can survive if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to climb at anywhere near their current levels.

That's the scenario a team of U.S. and Canadian scientists came up with in looking at the prospects for Arctic habitats if greenhouse-gas emissions follow a business-as-usual track through the end of the century.

The research, outlined at a briefing Thursday during the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco, stands as a bookend to a study published Thursday in the journal Nature, which suggests that sustainable populations of the bears could be preserved around the Arctic if greenhouse-gas emissions are aggressively curbed and if traditional wildlife-management approaches are rigorously applied.

The work in Nature "is talking about what happens if we act to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions," said Stephanie Pfirman, a marine geologist at Barnard College in New York as well as a researcher with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y. In the work she and her colleagues presented Thursday in San Francisco, she said, "We're providing a scenario on what a new Arctic reality might be if we don't" reduce emissions.

The team's curiosity was piqued by projections for summer sea-ice minimums in the Arctic Ocean if greenhouse-gas concentrations keep rising under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's "business as usual" emissions scenario.

Summer sea ice is vital to a range of Arctic marine and land animals, and its annual summer melt-off is projected to increase dramatically as the climate warms. As minimum extant declines, polar bears would lose the floating platforms they have come to rely on for hunting and breeding.

The climate simulation that the team used, assuming a business-as-usual emissions scenario, indicated that at the height of the summer melt-back, the sea-ice extent could fall from nearly 2 million square miles today to perhaps 100,000 square miles between 2040 and 2050. And it would hover around that level through the end of the century.