The drastic changes in the Arctic wrought by global warming aren’t just threatening that icon of climate change the polar bear, they’re also jeopardizing the health of other species–like the Pacific walrus. Environmentalists petitioned the federal government years ago to add the walrus to the endangered species list, but progress on the case has been slow. Now, in a decision that has angered both activists and oil drillers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that even though our be-blubbered friends deserve recognition under the Endangered Species Act, there are just too many other endangered animals to take care of first.
Specifically, the organization’s spokesman, Bruce Woods, said that protecting walruses was advised but “precluded.” That’s because other animals, like polar bears and certain species of sea birds, are more imperiled in this world of receding ice. The agency also said it’s hampered by lack of firm data on walrus population numbers.
“The main thing is that, compared to the polar bears, there are a lot of them,” Woods said of the Pacific walrus, adding that no baseline population count for the walrus exists…. “We don’t have any evidence of declines,” even if declines are suspected, he said. [Reuters]
The Agency’s decision has raised the ire of many.
Polar bears, the poster-species for climate change, have been the subject of reports about new or growing threats in 2010: One story noted that the warming Arctic is pushing grizzlies north into polar bear territory, while another questioned whether polar bears can change their diet as their icy habitat melts. But the journal Nature this week brought an antidote to all that doom and gloom. A study modeling the Arctic climate suggests that it’s still not too late to protect the polar bear habitat, and therefore save the polar bear. The world just needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The question is one of tipping points: Is the total demise of the Arctic summer sea ice already inevitable, or could a slowing of emissions also slow down the ice loss?
The dramatic retreat of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007 prompted some researchers to warn that the system may have reached a tipping point that would lead to the disappearance of summer sea ice within the next several decades, regardless of actions humans took to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. That concern, in turn, helped elevate the polar bear to climate-icon status and reportedly fed into then-President George W. Bush’s decision in 2008 to list the bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The new study, however, finds no “tipping point” now or in this century in Arctic sea-ice decline, but rather a relatively steady fall-off in ice extent as average temperatures increase. [Christian Science Monitor]
Study author Steven Amstrup, formerly of the U.S. Geological Survey and now at Polar Bears International, modeled five different scenarios for greenhouse emissions in the future. He saw a linear relationship between rising temperatures brought on by those emissions and the retreat of Arctic ice. What he didn’t see was a sharp sudden drop, a point at which crossing some temperature boundary led to an irrevocable disappearance of the ice that would doom the bears.
The clock is suddenly ticking for the U.S. Department of the Interior to defend its classification of the polar bear as “threatened,” rather than the more protective “endangered” classification.
The “threatened” designation dates back to the George W. Bush administration, but in response to a series of lawsuits concerning the polar bear, U.S. District of Columbia District Judge Emmet Sullivan said this week that the government needs to review that decision, because it was not based on a proper reading of the Endangered Species Act.
In his decision, Judge Sullivan said that the agency was wrong to conclude that a species had to be in imminent danger of extinction in order to qualify as an endangered species. He said that the Endangered Species Act was ambiguous as to whether a species had to be on the brink of extinction in order to be considered endangered. He did not rule on the merits. [Wall Street Journal]
The newest climate researchers are those one-horned wonders of the sea, narwhals. Researchers recruited these marine mammals to gather data about ocean temperatures in Baffin Bay, an icy stretch of the Arctic between northern Canada and Greenland. The project was a collaboration between several climate scientists and marine biologist Kristin Laidre, who declared the experiment a success.
“Narwhals proved to be highly efficient and cost-effective ‘biological oceanographers,’ providing wintertime data to fill gaps in our understanding of this important ocean area,” said Laidre. [Discovery News]
Researchers were eager for assistance, because the difficulty of gathering data in the Arctic winter had led to a hole in the climate data. Says study coauthor and oceanographer Mike Steele:
“Return to previous Arctic conditions is unlikely.” That’s the understated conclusion from this year’s Arctic Report Card, which found that air temperatures will continue rising and ice will continue melting in the Arctic as global warming continues to take its toll on the region. The annual report was prepared by 69 researchers in eight countries, and was issued by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
What goes on in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The researchers note that conditions in the Arctic can affect global weather, and point to the huge snowstorms that hit the American northeast and mid-Atlantic states last winter as an example.
“Normally the cold air is bottled up in the Arctic,” said Jim Overland of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. But last December and February, winds that normally blow west to east across the Arctic were instead bringing the colder air south to the Mid-Atlantic, he said. “As we lose more sea ice it’s a paradox that warming in the atmosphere can create more of these winter storms,” Overland said at a news briefing. [Washington Post]
This past summer was hot. Russia burned, New York City experienced the hottest summer on record, and residents of the northern hemisphere in general agreed that a cool breeze would be rather welcome. Now more extensive climate data is coming in for 2010, and guess what? Scientists have confirmed that it was hot.
According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the first 8 months of 2010 is the warmest such January-to-August period in climate records stretching back 131 years. This period was nearly 0.7˚C warmer than the average temperature from 1951 to 1980. (NOAA announced roughly the same finding today, using many of the same temperature stations but a different analysis method.) [ScienceNOW]
Researchers say that El Nino conditions in the Pacific Ocean are partly to blame for raising temperatures globally this past year. But, of course, man-made climate change is the larger culprit. This summer the Arctic sea ice shrank very quickly because the ice was already thin; at the end of the summer melt the Arctic ice area was the third smallest on record.
At its smallest extent, on 10 September, 4.76 million sq km (1.84 million sq miles) of Arctic Ocean was covered with ice — more than in 2007 and 2008, but less than in every other year since 1979. [BBC]
Way up in the Great White North, beneath Canada’s Baffin Island, lies material from the very beginning of the planet.
The search for primordial stuff—rocks that have survived 4.5 billion years since the formation of the Earth without being changed by forces that shook and scrambled our planet—is one of geology’s long-running quests. In Nature this week, Matthew Jackson says he may have done it. Jackson’s team found lava rocks in Canada with a signature that matches that of the newly formed Earth, suggesting there is material below the snowy surface that has endured unchanged throughout the planet’s history.
They have the highest proportion of the isotope helium-3 relative to helium-4 of any rocks known. This suggests that the rocks came from a “primitive” region of Earth, as, unlike helium-4, helium-3 can’t be replenished and thus must have come from the original building blocks of the planet. What’s more, the ratio of two isotopes of the element neodymium match what geochemists would expect for a residue from Earth’s early ocean of molten magma [ScienceNOW].
Researchers camped on the Greenland ice sheet hit bedrock this week after almost three years of drilling, reaching a depth of 8,000 feet. They hope that the ice they’ve uncovered from some 120,000 years ago, might give them a better understanding of what a warmer future might look like, if Greenland has less ice and the sea level rises.
The team, which is part of the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) project, is looking to learn more about carbon dioxide levels during the Eemian period, when global temperatures were over 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer and sea level was about 15 feet higher. They believe these conditions might mirror effects caused by the earth’s changing climate during the next century.
Scientists believe that by the end of the 21st century the planet will experience similar conditions again. Over the Greenland ice sheet, temperatures at the height of the Eemian may have been around 5 degrees Celsius warmer–mirroring the Arctic amplification of modern climate change. . . There are large uncertainties concerning the response of ice sheets to warming air and ocean temperatures. Understanding what happened to the Greenland ice sheet during the Eemian could help constrain projections of future sea level rise. [Nature]
There are about 20,000 gray whales living in the eastern Pacific Ocean today, plus another 200 in a small group in the western Pacific. And, in the Mediterranean Sea, scientists have found one.
Over the weekend, oceanographers saw a solitary gray whale cruising the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel. To say they were surprised would be a vast understatement: gray whales haven’t lived in the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean since their population crashed in the 1700s, possibly because of whaling operations. Yet today a solitary gray whale swims by the shores near Tel Aviv, halfway across the world from where the rest of its species resides (the researchers say they photographed the animal to be sure it wasn’t a different species, like sperm whale).
So what happened to get this whale to the far side of the world? Says Phillip Clapham of the US government’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle:
“The most plausible explanation is that it came across an ice-free North-West Passage from the Pacific Ocean, and is now wondering where the hell it is” [New Scientist].
Behind the ongoing back-and-forth fights over climate change that usually focus on carbon, there has lingered the threat of the powerful greenhouse gas methane being released into the atmosphere and causing even worse trouble. In August we reported on a study that noted methane bubbling up from the seafloor near islands north of Norway, giving scientists a scare. This week in Science, another team reports seeing the same thing during thousands of observations of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf on Russia’s north coast, which is even more worrisome because it’s a huge methane deposit.
The shelf, which covers about 800,000 square miles, was exposed during the last ice age. When the region was above sea level, tundra vegetation pulled carbon dioxide from the air as plants grew. That organic material, much of which didn’t decompose in the frigid Arctic, accumulated in the soil and is the source of modern methane [Science News]. Now underwater, it’s covered by a layer of permafrost. But that permafrost seems to be becoming unstable, thanks to the fact that the water on top of it is warmer than the air it was exposed to back when it was on dry land.