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Because of an increase in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, polar bear habitats are likely to see severe declines in sea ice extent by mid-century, which could lead to greatly decreased populations of the bears, federal agencies warned this week.
In a draft conservation management plan, scientists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wrote, "It cannot be overstated that the single most important action for the recovery of polar bears is to significantly reduce the present levels of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are the dominant source of increasing atmospheric levels that are the primary cause of warming in the Arctic."
Losing polar bears, means losing an important cultural element, Jack Omelak, executive director of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, said in a statement released by the FWS.
"Our people are natural conservationists and have practiced taking only what is needed for centuries," he said. "We treat polar bears and their habitats with reverence. Now, we are looking to our global community to do the same."
In 2008, polar bears became the first animal listed US government as threatened directly due to climate change. The Arctic is warming twice as fast the rest of the world, according to a late-2014 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, and it's estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears are alive there today.
Many predictions peg the species going extinct by 2050 or in the few decades after. For polar bears, ice is essential for giving birth, raising their young, and hunting seals. But with temperatures on the rise, there's less and less of it. The extent of summer sea ice hit a record low in 2012 and, just this March, winter sea ice in the Arctic hit a record low, too.
Earlier this week, a study by US Geological Survey (USGS) biologists found that sea ice loss, and by extension greenhouse gasses, is the biggest threat to polar bears. They reported that while peaking emissions by 2040 would buy the bears an extra 25 years before a sharp drop in their population, the species is locked in to plenty of trouble regardless of what we humans do now, because of what we've already burned.
"Addressing sea ice loss will require global policy solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and likely be years in the making," said Mike Runge, a USGS research ecologist, in a press release. "Because carbon emissions accumulate over time, there will be a lag, likely on the order of several decades, between mitigation of emissions and meaningful stabilization of sea ice loss."
Rebecca Noblin, the Center for Biological Diversity's Alaska director, criticized the timing of the FWS report, which came "just as Shell's oil rigs make their way north to begin drilling the polar bear's fragile Arctic habitat — with the Interior Department's blessing."
Shell plans to resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska this summer. It will mark the first time the company has returned to the region since its disastrous 2012 effort, which was marred by mechanical failures and the grounding of one of its drilling rigs during stormy weather. Two years later, the Shell contractor operating ships in the region, Noble Drilling, was found guilty of eight felony environmental and maritime safety violations committed during the 2012 drilling season, and ordered to pay more than $12 million in fines.
Noblin also faulted FWS for not including specific emissions targets in their report, which will be open for a 45-day public comment period beginning Monday.
"When it comes to the carbon pollution melting the polar bears' Arctic world, this plan just shrugs and hopes for the best," Noblin said. "Without specific targets we'll see more and more polar bears drowning and starving to death."
Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom