The Lords of the Arctic Feel the Heat

Both scientists and residents near the Hudson Bay have noticed it. The ice melts as much as three weeks earlier on the Bay than it did some 25 years ago. That inconvenience for hockey players and ice fishing enthusiasts could be a disaster for the "Lords of the North," the polar bear. Hudson Bay's 1,200 polar bears, the world's southernmost polar bear population, are becoming worldwide symbols for climate change and global warming.

Sea ice allows the bears to leave land and hunt seals; bears prowl ice floes, smash open snow lairs that seals create over breathing holes, and eat as much as 150 pounds of seal meat at one time. When the sea ice breaks up earlier, as it has in the western Hudson Bay as average temperatures have risen, the bears have less time to feed, which means less fat and less energy. If current temperature trends continue, this subarctic region of treeless tundra could shift toward a New England-style temperate leafy forest, and bears in the Bay could be a thing of the past.

Over 10,000 tourists come to Churchill, Manitoba, each fall to see Ursus maritimus ("bear of the sea"). They set out in tundra buggies (heated, elevated, bear-proof viewing mobiles) or sleek helicopters to view a charismatic animal that may become more and more difficult to find. The polar bear will be only one of many species affected by global warming.

References:

Brooke, James. 2000. "Global warming threatens 'Lords of the Arctic," Sacramento Bee, November 12, p. A8.

Michaels, Patrick. 1998. "Kyoto Protocol," Congressional Testimony, http://www.cato.org/testimony/et-pm072998.html