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Ice fjords, lifeblood for polar species, at risk in melting Arctic

By Pierre-Henry Deshayes (Agence France Press) - August 31, 2007

The Svalbard archipelago near the North Pole is already seeing the dramatic effects of global warming: the mercury is rising twice as fast as elsewhere on the planet, posing a serious threat to the ecosystem.

The Arctic sea ice has never been as small as it is now. This year, it shrank to less than five million square kilometers (1.93 million square miles) — a grim record for the planet.

“And there is still a month of melting in September,” says an alarmed Nalan Koc, head of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s polar climate programme.

In Svalbard, a Norwegian territory twice the size of Belgium which is home to the northernmost permanent population in the world, the effects of climate change can be seen with the naked eye.

For the past two years, the fjords on the west coast have been totally ice-free, even in winter.

In Longyearbyen, the capital, the lack of ice means residents can no longer race their snowscooters on Isfjorden (Ice Fjord), which may have to be renamed one day.

Meanwhile the Esmark glacier, a mass of white ice jetting into Isfjorden, has shrunk by 3.5 kilometers (2.17 miles) since 1966 though researchers are unable to say whether the change is due to global warming or the glacier’s normal cycle.

Despite its remote location in the far north, Svalbard, which was located near the equator 250 million years ago, is habitable today because of the Gulf Stream which raises the region’s temperature by 10 degrees Celsius.

But the temperature could soon get too warm.

Scientists predict the mercury could rise in the Arctic by between 3.5 and six degrees Celsius by the end of the century, or “two to three times as much as the global rate,” Koc said.

By 2050, the ice cap may have entirely disappeared in summer.

The melting ice is a blessing for oil companies which see a potential treasure opening up before their very eyes.

According to the US Geological Survey, 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas is thought to lie under the Arctic seabed.

The melting ice could also open new maritime routes, such as the Northwest Passage, to year-round international shipping, offering a much shorter route than the Suez and Panama canals.

But the change would be a catastrophe for many Arctic species and risks disrupting the entire ecosystem.

“Animals have dealt with change in the past but it’s the rate at which the climate is changing and is expected to change which is frightening,” says Kit Kovacs, the head of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s biodiversity programme.

For species that are accustomed to living in polar conditions, “there is nowhere north for them to go,” she adds.

Once the ice sheet is gone, the ringed seal’s habitat will be gone too — a dramatic consequence for a mammal that has never set its flippers on land.

The same fate awaits the polar bear, whose life depends on the ice in order to roam and hunt for food.

When polar bears come out of their hibernation to find the ice sheet receding ever earlier in the season, as is increasingly the case, they are able to swim to the ice as they are strong swimmers. But newborn polar bears are not, and often fail in their attempts.

Unless climate change is halted, “the polar bear faces extinction by 2050,” Kovacs warned.