Up north in the Canadian province of Manitoba, polar bears are receiving some unwelcome guests. Researchers have seen grizzly bears moving into the area for the first time, and that might not be good news for the already-troubled polar bears.
Linda Gormezano and her team, who are publishing the study (pdf) in Canadian Field-Naturalist, weren’t even looking for grizzlies when they started to spot the huge mammals; they were flying around counting fox dens. Before 1996, there was no evidence that grizzly bears encroached on polar bear territory. From that year on, however, there have been at least 12 sightings, negating the prior theory that the barren landscape north of the Hudson Bay was impassable, in terms of resources, for migrating grizzly bears [Discovery News]. If grizzlies can survive there, Gormezano says, they’ll probably want to stay, because there’s a bevy of caribou, fish, and other good things to eat.
If you thought George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air” racked up a lot of frequent flyer miles, you should meet his avian rival, which flies the equivalent of three round trips to the moon and back during its lifespan. For a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tracked the arduous migration of the tiny Arctic tern and found that it flies an average of 44,000 miles every year on its trip from Greenland to Antarctica and back. That’s a new world record.
Scientists suspected that this tern could best the previous world record of 39,000-mile migrations by the sooty shearwater, though they previously lacked tracking devices small enough for the bird to carry. But the team used a tiny tracker developed by the British Antarctic Survey, which weighs just a twentieth of an ounce (1.4 grams)—light enough for an Arctic tern to carry on a band around its leg [National Geographic]. This device reported the birds’ position twice daily.
A lone wolf named Brutus is helping U.S. Geological Survey scientists study Arctic wolf migrations in remote regions of Canada. These migrations can traverse hundreds of miles in 24-hour winter darkness at temperatures that reach 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
There’s no way humans can physically follow the wolves under these brutal conditions, so Brutus is sporting a GPS collar that beams his coordinates back to a satellite every 12 hours. As it turns out, the wolves are covering a lot of ground, as can be seen in the map above. Now, the fjords visible in the summer image above have frozen and can be crossed on foot. In one trip, the wolf and his pack traveled 80 miles from Ellesmere Island to Axel Heiberg Island and back in just 84 hours. Just through November 30, Brutus has traveled 1,683 miles [Wired.com].
The Obama administration plans to designate more than 200,000 square miles in Alaska as protected, critical habitat for the endangered polar bear, the Interior Department announced yesterday. The proposed area covers a vast swath of sea ice off Alaska’s northwest coast, as well as barrier islands and a coastal region where the bears make their dens. The area, the largest single designation of protected habitat for any species, encompasses the entire range of the two polar bear populations that exist on American land and territorial waters. Government scientists estimate that there are roughly 3,500 bears in the two groups, known the Chukchi Sea and the Southern Beaufort Sea populations [The New York Times]. The bears are threatened by the gradual disappearance of their sea ice habitat due to global warming.
The move could lead to new restrictions on offshore drilling for oil and gas in Alaska’s waters. Federal law prohibits agencies from taking actions that may adversely affect critical habitat and interfere with polar bear recovery…. Designation as critical habitat would not, in itself, bar oil or gas development, but would make consideration of the effect on polar bears and their habitat an explicit part of any government-approved activity [AP]. The proposed federal rule will now be subject to public comment, and the final rule is expected to be announced next year.
80beats: Should Humans Relocate Animals Threatened by Global Warming?
80beats: Obama Brings Experts Back to Endangered Species Policy
80beats: Obama Moves to Undo Bush-Era Environmental Policies
80beats: 2 Trillion Tons of Polar Ice Lost in 5 Years, and Melting Is Accelerating
DISCOVER: Polar Bears (Finally) Make the Endangered Species List
Image: flickr / longhorndave
Arctic sea ice melting, which scientists have linked to global warming, may be a boon for the shipping industry. As the sea ice continues to melt a shipping passage to Russia’s north is becoming more navigable, and now two German ships are close to completing the first trip from Asia to Europe via the Arctic shortcut. However, walruses that live in the Arctic could care less, since their sea ice habitat is rapidly disappearing.
Thousands of walruses are congregating on Alaska’s northwest coast, a sign that their Arctic sea ice environment has been altered by climate change. Chad Jay, a U.S. Geological Survey walrus researcher, said Wednesday that about 3,500 walruses were near Icy Cape on the Chukchi Sea, some 140 miles southwest of Barrow [AP]. Walruses wear themselves out diving for clams, and need to rest on the sea ice between meals. Since the sea ice is disappearing, they are turning to the shore for a break. Federal managers and researchers worry that so many walruses in one location could lead to a deadly stampede or could drive off prey. Highlighting the animals’ peril, the Obama administration is considering adding walruses to the endangered species list.
At the bottom of the Arctic Sea lie vast deposits of methane gas trapped in frozen, icy forms called methane hydrates, and climate scientists would very much prefer that it remains trapped down there. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and some researchers worry that a warming ocean may melt the icy structures, allowing the gas to travel up through the water to the atmosphere, where it could further contribute to global warming. Now, scientists who have been scanning the seas for signs of trouble say they may have found some.
The researchers spotted 250 plumes of methane gas bubbling up through the sea north of Norway. The region where the team found the plumes is being warmed by the West Spitsbergen current, which has warmed by 1 °C over the past 30 years. “Hydrates are stable only within a particular range of temperatures,” says [study coauthor Tim] Minshull. “So if the ocean warms, some of the hydrates will break down and release their methane” [New Scientist]. However, the scientists couldn’t prove that the methane is being released as a direct result of the warming, and say it’s possible there have always been methane seeps like these.
After 120,000 years of slumbering in a Greenland glacier beneath almost two miles of ice, an ultra-small bacteria has been resurrected by the patient efforts of scientists. After incubating the bacteria for almost a year in water that was just above freezing temperature, colonies of the tiny purple-brown bacteria began to grow in a petri dish. Researchers say the bacteria’s resilience provides clues to how life can survive in hostile environments like the Arctic–and maybe even other planets.
The Herminiimonas glaciei bug is not the oldest to ever be resurrected, but it’s the first “ultramicrobacteria” to be revived. Ultramicrobacteria, tiny even by bacterial standards, are about 10 to 50 times smaller than the common human intestinal microbe E. coli. Their diminutive size could give the bacteria a survival advantage over other microorganisms. H. glaciei, for example, is thought to have survived in thin capillaries of nutrient-rich water in the Greenland glacier that would have been too tight a fit for larger bacteria [National Geographic News].
As global warming gradually melts away the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, the oil and gas deposits buried in that inaccessible region are becoming a lot less theoretical to the five northern nations with claims to those riches. “For better or worse, limited exploration prospects in the rest of the world combined with technological advances make the Arctic increasingly attractive for development,” said Paul Berkman, … who specialises in the politics of the Arctic [The Guardian]. Now, a new study has estimated how much oil and gas may lie beneath the Arctic seabed, declaring that it contains about 30 percent of the planet’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil.
Researchers estimate that the Arctic holds about about 83 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, but say that’s not enough to challenge the dominance of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states. Meanwhile, the researchers say that the Arctic’s estimated 1,550 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is concentrated in marine territory claimed by Russia, ensuring that Russia will continue to be the world’s largest producer of gas. “These findings suggest that in the future the … pre-eminence of Russian strategic control of gas resources in particular is likely to be accentuated and extended,” said Donald L. Gautier, lead author of the study [AP].
Russia has not been shy about pressing its claim to the polar region: In 2007 two Russian civilian mini-submarines descended to the seabed to collect geological and water samples and drop a titanium canister containing the Russian flag [AP]. The other four northernmost nations — Canada, the United States, Norway, and Denmark (via Greenland) — have also sought some jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic.
The Obama administration announced on Friday that it will keep a Bush-era rule that limits the steps that the government can take to protect polar bears. The rule prevents the Endangered Species Act from being used to curb greenhouse gas emissions, even though those emissions contribute to the shrinking of polar bear habitat by causing global warming and melting Arctic sea ice. The decision comes despite recent moves to undo former president Bush’s environmental legacy. It was announced on Friday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who rejected special authority given to him by Congress and the pleas of Democratic lawmakers, environmentalists and scientists to overturn the regulation [Greenwire].
According to federal officials, the Endangered Species Act was written for a different kind of threat. In cases where an animal is threatened by logging, trapping or land development, it is used to identify—and punish—individual actions that harm them. That framework cannot be applied to climate change, they said, because the sources of that problem are global [San Francisco Chronicle]. Salazar said that the polar bear will still be listed as “threatened,” but instead of protecting it through the Endangered Species Act, the administration would push for legislation to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A “comprehensive global change strategy” is needed, he said.
New oil and gas drilling in the Arctic ocean off the coast of Siberia could be powered by floating nuclear power plants, according to Russia’s nuclear energy agency, and off-shore plants may also be built to provide energy for remote towns and military outposts.
The Russian nuclear agency has reportedly signed a deal to build four plants for towns in the far northern Siberian Republic of Yakutiya, and is currently constructing its first floating nuclear plant for a defense facility by the White Sea. But environmental groups are most alarmed at the prospect of using the portable plants to power oil and gas drilling. The 70-megawatt plants, each of which would consist of two reactors on board giant steel platforms, would provide power to Gazprom, the oil firm which is also Russia’s biggest company. It would allow Gazprom to power drills needed to exploit some of the remotest oil and gas fields in the world in the Barents and Kara seas. The self-propelled vessels would store their own waste and fuel and would need to be serviced only once every 12 to 14 years [The Guardian].