An aerial survey by government scientists in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea this week found at least nine polar bears swimming in open water - with one at least 60 miles from shore - raising concern among wildlife experts about their survival. Geoff York, the polar bear coordinator for WWF’s Arctic Programme, said that when polar bears swim so far from land, they could have difficulty making it safely to shore and are at risk of drowning, particularly if a storm arises. “To find so many polar bears at sea at one time is extremely worrisome because it could be an indication that as the sea ice on which they live and hunt continues to melt, many more bears may be out there facing similar risk,” he said.
“As climate change continues to dramatically disrupt the Arctic, polar bears and their cubs are being forced to swim longer distances to find food and habitat.” Scientists say the Arctic is changing more rapidly and acutely than anywhere on the planet, noting that 2007 witnessed the lowest sea ice coverage in recorded history. Satellite images indicate that ice was absent in most of the region where the bears were found on August 16, 2008, and some experts predict this year’s sea ice loss could meet or exceed the record set last year.
The discovery of the nine bears at sea came as the US Minerals Management Service was conducting marine surveys in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in advance of potential offshore oil development.
In May, the US Department of Interior listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne cited the strong body of science pointing to the significant loss of Arctic sea ice habitat as the primary reason for protecting the bear with federal legislation.
However, the state of Alaska has opposed the listing and has sued the federal government over its decision to list the bear.
Professor Richard Steiner of the University of Alaska’s Marine Advisory Program said: “While these bears are swimming around in an ice-free coastal Arctic Ocean, the only thing the State of Alaska is doing is suing the federal government trying to overturn the listing of polar bears.
“The bottom line here is that polar bears need sea ice, sea ice is decaying, and the bears are in very serious trouble. For any people who are still non-believers in global warming and the impacts it is having in the Arctic, this should answer their doubts once and for all.”
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