By JANE KAY
San Francisco Chronicle
January 17, 2006
Up onto the spit of sand on Barter Island came two more, a mother and cub rising from the slate-gray Beaufort Sea. They shook off sheets of water and sauntered over to share the feast, greeting the others with a touch of shiny black noses.
Humans don't often see these luminous bears in the wild. They are not land animals, and live nearly all their lives on the vast floating sea ice within the Arctic Circle.
Soon they may not be seen at all. The top of the world is ground zero for global warming, the first part of Earth to show dramatic effects from the heating of the atmosphere and oceans. The bears' frozen habitat is rapidly shrinking.
If a warming world melts nearly all sea ice during summers, as computer models predict will happen by the end of the century, scientists warn that the polar bear is unlikely to survive as a species.
To those who come to watch the scavenging bears on this sand spit, on the edge of the Inupiat Eskimo village of Kaktovik, their growing numbers on land are one more sign that a way of life thousands of years old is melting away.
When polar bears turn up on land, scientists think, it means the sea ice - their home and hunting ground - has retreated so far from the shore and its rich coastal waters that they can't find their main prey, ringed and bearded seals.
In the past, as part of the sea ice's yearly short-term melt, there would be open water for only a few weeks. Now the ice breaks up earlier each spring, and the ocean freezes over later each fall. The bears that swim to land must stay there longer, for as long as five or six weeks, where they basically fast because food is scarce on land - even with the whale carcasses, which Inupiat whaling crews leave on the spit each September after butchering their catch.
As the ice recedes farther each summer and fall, greater numbers of bears swim the 100 or more miles of open water to reach land. There they stay until the ice returns.
The Inupiats see evidence of warming all around them.
Longtime fishing camps are under water. The coastline is eroding. Unfamiliar species of fish are caught in their nets. And the ice that defined their lives is disappearing.
In years past, as migrating whales swam close enough to hunt in September, the open water was already freezing up. Whaling crews scouted the sea by climbing icebergs. The bergs also calmed the sea swells.
"Now it takes longer for the ocean to freeze up," and at the whale hunt "there's hardly any floating ice at all," said Charlie Brower, 46, a water-plant operator and whaling captain.
The whaling crews leave the carcasses on the sand spit to keep bears away from Kaktovik, the only village in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the north coast of Alaska.
After thousands of years of hunting the polar bear, eating its meat and using its dense fur for clothing and tents, Inupiats today mostly like to watch them. The young people don't share their grandparents' taste for bear meat.
The Inupiats feel a special relationship with the bear. Brower describes it as "respect." Others call the bear a relative, a guide in the quest for food.
At the whale bone pile, the bears are also watched by scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, experts who have made protecting the polar bear their career.
Twenty-five years ago, they mostly monitored the legal hunting of southern Beaufort Sea bears, providing evidence that the regional population of 1,900, out of 22,000 worldwide, could withstand limited hunting.
"We used to have to explain why the polar bear didn't have to be listed as a threatened species," said Scott Schliebe, a marine mammal expert. "Now," he said, because of the warming, "we're not so sure."
Now, he and other scientists track how climate change may be dooming the bears. This year snow and sea ice didn't come to Barter Island until late October.
"Polar bears have developed a narrow niche," Schliebe said. "They feed on ice seals. The ice is their home. It's where their food and nourishment come from."
Nature guides the lives of Arctic dwellers, and over thousands of years they've adapted to predictable seasons. Now things are changing at a rate perhaps too fast for the polar bear and many other species to adapt, Schliebe said.
The current rate of loss of sea ice is likely to push the Arctic system into a climatic state not seen for at least a million years, scientists say, based on the evidence they see in ice cores and other natural records.
But what happens in the Arctic affects the globe as a whole, according to computer models developed by an international body of scientists.
The Arctic melt is expected to amplify the Earth's warming, as there is less sea ice to reflect sunlight back into space and more ocean to absorb solar energy.
As mountain and land glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet melt, sea levels will rise, threatening low-lying populations around the world.
Melting permafrost releases carbon dioxide, adding to the greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Fresher water flowing into the North Atlantic from the Arctic will change ocean temperatures and currents, which could disrupt the conveyor belt-like Gulf Stream and lower Europe's temperature, even as the rest of the world warms.
"Today we're witnessing the effects of climate change on the polar bear firsthand," Schliebe said. "We believe these are harbingers of changes yet to come."
The bears usually come out in the early morning and evening. One day near sundown, a young male and a 600-pound mother with a 2-year-old cub prowled around the pile. Like the others, they favored the blubber, which provides the weight they need to make it through winter.
Daniel Akootchook, an Inupiat elder in a purple parka with a white wolf ruff, bounced up in a snow machine, the mechanized four-wheeler that has replaced dogsleds. Every year he waits for the bears to come.
The Eskimo belief is that the bear, which can stand erect on two legs, is the animal closest to humans. Bears, they believe, are conceived to give themselves to people, but they must be honored. If they are ill treated, they could withdraw, to humans' detriment.
Dozens of stories recount bears joining families as members, or offering supernatural healing powers. Eskimos say their own hunting strategy imitates the bear's stalking of seals - flattening itself on the ground, hiding behind blocks of ice and even using camouflage, covering its black nose with a white paw.
Akootchook has lots of polar bear stories, and they all start with "once."
Akootchook, 73, was born and raised in the Eskimo culture, one of three Alaska native peoples, along with Aleuts and Indians. People have lived in the Arctic since at least the peak of the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago.
His family doesn't know how long its ancestors have been on what is called the North Slope. But even his generation at one time lived a nomadic sort of life, following the natural hunting seasons for caribou, polar bears, geese, fish, seals and any other wildlife they could eat to stay alive.
More than four-fifths of Kaktovik's 300 residents are Inupiat Eskimos, or Inuits. Most pursue a traditional life, even though oil drilling in the 1970s in Prudhoe Bay, about 100 miles west, brought modest houses, electricity and running water.
Stopping at Waldo Arms, a lodging house, Charlie Brower's sister, Marie Rexford, a 42-year-old mother of four, said the traditional life that keeps people together depends on the climate.
"Every spring break, we take the kids out to see how we hunt, how we live off the land," she said. "They like to eat the Inupiat food. We teach them how to go and get them - caribou, Dahl's sheep, bearded seal, moose and fish."
But lately Rexford has seen evidence of the earlier melt - rising sea levels, erosion and odd wildlife sightings.
"We've been getting silver salmon and a weird-looking humpbacked salmon in our nets at Griffin Point, east of Barter Island," she said.
In 1998 she caught, froze and brought to a state biologist one of the first saffron cods to show up in the refuge's waters. "This year we got 18 in our net," she said.
These fish are normally found west and south of the Arctic Ocean. But a change in marine currents and as little as a half-degree rise Fahrenheit in water temperature can create or ruin a fish's habitat, scientists say.
Her daughter, Flora, 19, a young North Slope artist, has her own observations:
"The cliffs around here get smaller and smaller. They're eroding away, and you can see the permafrost underneath. We used to be able to drive four-wheelers across the island on the beach. Now it's hard to make it because there's so much mud."
At the bone pile on Barter Island, parked about 30 yards away, Schliebe and two other scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage watched the bears through binoculars.
For a month every year, the research continues from dusk to dawn. Periodically the scientists videotape each bear for 20 minutes, carefully recording the feeding and the interactions among the animals and with the human onlookers.
The agency has authority for protecting the polar bears. The annual field work in Kaktovik complements aerial surveys between Barrow and the Canadian border.
Schliebe, a heavy-shouldered man with a white mustache, leads the team. He has studied polar bears in Alaska for 25 years and is past chairman of the polar bear specialists group of the World Conservation Union, a body of nations, agencies and private groups dedicated to protecting species.
Under an agreement combining Alaskan subsistence hunting and $25,000-a-permit sport trophy hunting in Canada, 80 bears can be killed annually by U.S. and Canadian citizens.
In the last few years, new documentation of the shrinking sea ice and the harm to bears has switched the focus from managing hunting to studying climate change.
Two Canadian researchers, Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher, found that in the southernmost bear population of Hudson Bay, where the sea ice was shrinking fastest, bears weighed less and had fewer births and survivals.
As sea ice thinned and broke up, the bears were forced to change how they lived and hunted. And they spent more time on land, using greater amounts of energy to survive.
In the Beaufort Sea, meanwhile, more bears have come ashore in September as the distance between sea ice and land has increased, Schliebe's team discovered during the first five years of an ongoing study.
Polar bears don't come to land at all if conditions are good on the ice, Schliebe said. Conditions are ideal when the ice is close enough to land to float over the shallow waters of the continental shelf, a rich feeding ground for the seals that are the bears' main prey.
Now, even though the continental shelf extends 43 miles from the shore, summer ice retreats far beyond it. There are no seals, so, out of desperation the bears go to land, where there is hardly any food at all.
Since the mid-1990s, the sea ice has receded farther from Barter Island, this year as far as 250 miles or roughly five times the distance of some previous years.
Increasingly, the long swim to land poses its own danger. Some bears drown. Females that give birth on land over the winter may not be able to bring their cubs back to the distant sea ice in the spring.
In aerial surveys to count bowhead whales, the federal Minerals Management Service reported seeing four drowned polar bears floating in open water in 2004, apparently fatigued while trying to swim in high winds.
"Two decades ago, the survey found the bears uniformly scattered on the ice over the continental shelf in September," said Charles Monnett, a federal marine ecologist who does the flight. "Now the sea ice has retreated north of the edge of the continental shelf, and in September the polar bears are on the beach instead of on the ice."
Polar bears, which split from an ancestor shared with the grizzly about 200,000 years ago, evolved into powerful swimmers. They can maintain speeds of 2 to 3 mph and reach up to 5 mph. In August, the Norwegian Polar Institute tracked a tagged bear traveling at least 45 miles in less than 24 hours.
But no one knows how far a bear trying to get to land can swim.
"I believe that 100 miles is reasonable but 200 miles isn't," said Steve Amstrup, director of polar bear research for 25 years with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Driving from the bone pile, Schliebe stopped along the shore to watch a young polar bear mother, probably with her first cub, out on the barrier islands where the bears loaf.
"She needs to get beefed up," he said. "You can see she's nervous. Most bears conserve energy by scraping out a low place for protection against the wind. She's right out in the open."
Scientists worldwide are documenting in long-term studies what the Eskimos see on the ground - the spring breakup starts earlier; the winter recovery of sea ice comes later, and the ice doesn't build back up to its former volume, leaving it more vulnerable the next summer.
In the past few decades, the Arctic average temperature has risen at almost twice the rate as the rest of the world. Paleoclimatologists say the Arctic is as warm as it has been for more than 100,000 years.
Over the past century, the global average temperature has risen about 1 degree. That might seem small, but adding a moderate amount of automobile and industrial emissions to the atmosphere would raise temperatures an additional 4 degrees this century, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of 2,000 scientists from 100 countries.
But annual average temperatures in the Arctic, which increased at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world in the past few decades, are projected to rise even more: 5 to 9 degrees over land and up to 13 degrees over the ocean.
Over the past century, tidal gauges worldwide show a rise in sea level of about 7 inches , and the rate has been increasing. As land ice melts, and warmer water expands in volume, sea levels could rise from 11 inches to more than 3 feet by the year 2090. A 3-foot rise would affect not only the Inupiat on Barter Island, but also 100 million other coastal dwellers around the world. It would drown the Pacific and Indian Ocean nations of Maldives, Kiribati and Tuvalu.
In California, the rise would require extensive flood prevention measures around San Francisco Bay and could play havoc with the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the source of much of the state's water supply.
At the North Slope Borough office in Kaktovik, village liaison Nora Jane Burns had lots of examples of how the sea has risen and the ice has melted since she was in her 20s two decades ago.
The anecdotes make her wonder where life is headed on Barter Island.
Her family had a summer fish camp nearby along the Jago River. "We used to camp right on the sandbar," she said. "But now it's under water."
Near the fish camp, Burns said, the ground used to be frozen hard. "Now you sort of bounce when you walk on the ground."
The climate changes brought by global warming could, in fact, benefit some parts of the world. A popular bumper sticker around Anchorage reads, "Alaskans for Global Warming."
Burns said she can appreciate that sentiment. "I'm hoping we'll go tropical," she said with a laugh. But when she considers the consequences, she said, she prefers the Arctic life that the people know. "I wouldn't trade."
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