SPECIES ARE DYING OUT FASTER THAN WE HAVE DARED TO RECOGNIZE October 02, 2005 3:49 PM
Melting Planet: Species are Dying Out Faster Than We Have Dared Recognize, Scientists Will Warn This Week
The erosion of polar ice is the first break in a fragile chain of life extending across the planet, from bears in the north to penguins in the far south
by Andrew Buncombe in Anchorage and Severin Carrell in London
The polar bear is one of the natural world's most famous predators - the king of the Arctic wastelands. But, like its vast Arctic home, the polar bear is under unprecedented threat. Both are disappearing with alarming speed.
The UK, which is attempting to put climate change at the top of the global agenda during its presidency of the G8 group of industrialised nations, is still struggling to persuade the American, Japanese and Australian governments to admit that mankind's gas emissions are the biggest threat. These three continue to insist there is no proof that climate change is largely manmade.
Thinning ice and longer summers are destroying the bears' habitat, and as the ice floes shrink, the desperate animals are driven by starvation into human settlements - to be shot. Stranded polar bears are drowning in large numbers as they try to swim hundreds of miles to find increasingly scarce ice floes. Local hunters find their corpses floating on seas once coated in a thick skin of ice.
It is a phenomenon that frightens the native people that live around the Arctic. Many fear their children will never know the polar bear. "The ice is moving further and further north," said Charlie Johnson, 64, an Alaskan Nupiak from Nome, in the state's far west. "In the Bering Sea the ice leaves earlier and earlier. On the north slope, the ice is retreating as far as 300 or 400 miles offshore."
Last year, hunters found half a dozen bears that had drowned about 200 miles north of Barrow, on Alaska's northern coast. "It seems they had tried to swim for shore ... A polar bear might be able to swim 100 miles but not 400."
His alarming testimony, given at a conference on global warming and native communities held in the Alaskan capital, Anchorage, last week, is just one story of the many changes happening across the globe. Climate change threatens the survival of thousands of species - a threat unparalleled since the last ice age, which ended some 10,000 years ago.
The vast majority, scientists will warn this week, are migratory animals - sperm whales, polar bears, gazelles, garden birds and turtles - whose survival depends on the intricate web of habitats, food supplies and weather conditions which, for some species, can stretch for 6,500 miles. Every link of that chain is slowly but perceptibly altering.
Europe's most senior ecologists and conservationists are meeting in Aviemore, in the Scottish Highlands, this week for a conference on the impact of climate change on migratory species, an event organised by the British government as part of its presidency of the European Union. It is a well-chosen location. Aviemore's major winter employer - skiing - is a victim of warmer winters. Ski slopes in the Cairngorms, which once had snow caps year round on the highest peaks, have recently been closed down when the winter snow failed. The snow bunting, ptarmigan and dotterel - some of Scotland's rarest birds - are also given little chance of survival as their harsh and marginal winter environments disappear.
A report being presented this week in Aviemore reveals this is a pattern being repeated around the world. In the sub-Arctic tundra,caribou are threatened by "multiple climate change impacts". Deeper snow at higher latitudes makes it harder for caribou herds to travel. Faster and more regular "freeze-thaw" cycles make it harder to dig out food under thick crusts of ice-covered snow. Wetter and warmer winters are cutting calving success, and increasing insect attacks and disease.
The same holds true for migratory wading birds such as the red knot and the northern seal. The endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, too, faces extinction, the report says. They are of "key concern". It says that species "cannot shift further north as their climates become warmer. They have nowhere left to go ... We can see, very clearly, that most migratory species are drifting towards the poles."
The report, passed to The Independent on Sunday, and commissioned by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), makes gloomy predictions about the world's animal populations. "The habitats of migratory species most vulnerable to climate change were found to be tundra, cloud forest, sea ice and low-lying coastal areas," it states. "Increased droughts and lowered water tables, particularly in key areas used as 'staging posts' on migration, were also identified as key threats stemming from climate change."
Some of itsfindings include:
Four out of five migratory birds listed by the UN face problems ranging from lower water tables to increased droughts, spreading deserts and shifting food supplies in their crucial "fuelling stations" as they migrate.
One-third of turtle nesting sites in the Caribbean - home to diminishing numbers of green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles - would be swamped by a sea level rise of 50cm (20ins). This will "drastically" hit their numbers. At the same time, shallow waters used by the endangered Mediterranean monk seal, dolphins, dugongs and manatees will slowly disappear.
Whales, salmon, cod, penguins and kittiwakes are affected by shifts in distribution and abundance of krill and plankton, which has "declined in places to a hundredth or thousandth of former numbers because of warmer sea-surface temperatures."
Increased dam building, a response to water shortages and growing demand, is affecting the natural migration patterns of tucuxi, South American river dolphins, "with potentially damaging results".
Fewer chiffchaffs, blackbirds, robins and song thrushes are migrating from the UK due to warmer winters. Egg-layin
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