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We can bear global warming until it hits close to home January 18, 2006 12:51 PM

LAURA BILLINGS

The Power Ice Auger World Championships on Pelican Lake were canceled last weekend because the ice wasn't thick enough to support hundreds of people and their equipment.

The St. Paul Winter Carnival organizers called off plans for an ice-fishing contest on White Bear Lake and will instead offer St. Paul children the chance to try something called "snow fishing."

Balmy weather is even posing troubles for those "polar bear" swimmers whose foolhardiness isn't nearly as newsworthy in a winter when you can get by with a light jacket.

But that's nothing compared to actual polar bears. They've really got problems.

In fact, for the first time, wildlife biologists in Alaska have documented the drowning of polar bears whose habitat is literally melting away.

While the magnificent creatures are famous for their swimming ability along the Arctic shallows, the melting of the Arctic shelf is creating smaller ice floes for the bears to hunt from, with greater stretches of open water between them. Researchers who presented their findings at a conference on marine mammals last month were startled to find bears swimming across 60 miles of open water to find food.

This comes upon more bad news for polar bears. Scientists in Canada, Norway, Denmark and Alaska have found that the bears' fat tissue is retaining high concentrations of flame retardants that may be weakening their immune systems and altering their sex hormones. Researchers in Russia also have noted the first evidence of cannibalism among polar bears competing for food.

Now drowning of polar bears could be on the rise, researchers reported, as long as "the observed trend in regression of pack ice continues." Arctic pack ice has been shrinking by 8 percent to 10 percent each decade, with the most dramatic models predicting an ice-free Arctic summer as early as 2050.

This means that in our lifetimes, the only polar bears could be at Como Zoo or in winter holiday Coke commercials.

To prevent this possibility, three conservation groups the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace are now suing the federal government, demanding to protect the polar bear from the effects of global warming under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, which is itself under attack in Congress.

So far, the plaintiffs haven't received a response from the government, and probably aren't likely to. If we're not willing to take a hard look at greenhouse emissions for the Kyoto Protocol, why would we do it for the world's 20,000 polar bears?

Of course, the plight of the polar bear is just one of the many signs of global climate change, including hurricanes and other extreme weather, and warming trends across the continents. (Did you notice it's 16 degrees warmer than usual this winter?) Even those little Emperor penguins everybody loved in "March of the Penguins" have seen their population cut in half in the past 50 years, due to a warming trend in the 1970s that scientists link to global warming.

But until the dots start to connect to something we really care about, there may not be much political will to change global climate change. Close as we are to Canada, polar bears still don't hit that close to home.

Of course, if continued warm weather means they have to call off the big pond hockey tournament at Lake Calhoun this weekend, it might be time to start paying attention.

Laura Billings can be reached at lbillings@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5584.

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