What Happens To Polar Bears As Arctic Ice Shrinks?

A polar bear stands among pieces of ice floating in the sea

Author Alun Anderson says polar bears will disappear by the middle of this century as the Arctic sea ice continues to melt. Alun Anderson hide caption

itoggle caption Alun Anderson

Imagine if that incredible expanse of Arctic ice on the top of the globe were to turn into blue ocean. What would happen? That's the question Alun Anderson asks in his new book After the Ice: Life, Death and Geopolitics in the New Arctic..

Read an excerpt from Alun Anderson's book.

Anderson, former editor-in-chief of New Scientist magazine, says at the rate the sea ice is melting, by the summer of 2050, the Arctic will be a mostly open ocean.

"The polar bear is the king of the Arctic, the top predator. It'll be gone," Anderson tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "A killer whale living in open water will be the symbol of the Arctic, replacing a bear on ice. And that's an astonishing change."

Anderson says as the ice melts, it will take several forms of "revenge" on those living south of the Arctic.

"Once the tundra that rims the Arctic starts to thaw, what we'll see is greenhouse gases pouring out of that tundra," Anderson says. Those gases include methane and carbon dioxide, and they'll contribute to climate change, he says.

Another problem: rising sea levels. As the ice cap sitting on top of Greenland melts, it pours into the sea. Anderson says if the entire cap melts, sea levels worldwide will rise by 20 feet or more.

"It'll take hundreds, probably thousands of years for all the ice to melt, but once it gets going, once it really gets going, it will become unstoppable," he says. "The ice that sits on top of Greenland, not the sea ice, is a little bit different. We have more chance to save that, quite definitely. But the ice that fills that ocean is going, and I don't think we're able to stop it."

Anderson says that will also have a huge impact on the people who live and hunt in the Arctic, and it will open up a bunch of new geopolitical headaches for the countries rimming the Arctic Circle.

As the ice melts, the Arctic area becomes more accessible -– as does the 90 billion barrels of oil the U.S. Geological Survey estimates are beneath the Arctic Ocean.

"As it becomes accessible, you need to be able to police and patrol it," Anderson says, "and nobody has the capacity to police and patrol it at the moment."

Excerpt: 'After the Ice: Life, Death and Geopolitics in the New Arctic'

After the Ice book cover

Introduction: The Bear on the Beach

The first polar bear that I ever saw was walking steadily along a narrow strip of beach on the south coast of Devon Island. I'd arrived in Canada's High Arctic only the day before, after flying due north for six hours from the August heat of Ottawa to the little gravel airstrip at Resolute, a place that was not even marked on my atlas back home in London.

A chance invitation had brought me here: a journalist colleague of mine had been invited to join a small cruise ship to see the High North, but had to cancel at the last minute. I volunteered instead, knowing nothing of what lay before me.

At Resolute I had a quick course in how to climb into an inflatable Zodiac boat and then sped off across the bay, weaving among the ice floes, to a four-hundred-foot Russian ship that was about to leave for Ellesmere Island. Once beyond the bay, the ship ran into a huge field of ice. The captain called up the Canadian Coast Guard, and its bright red icebreaker, Des Groseilliers, came out to cut a path through the ice for us, and then said goodbye with a blast of its siren. We sailed on east into open blue water and sunshine with the eroded, ochre-red desert cliffs of Devon Island alongside us to the north. Only the occasional glimpse of the ice cap far inland told me that I was in the Arctic and not on a cruise up the Nile.

Jet lag kept me up far into the endless light of the Arctic night, and to cure it I went up on deck. That is where I saw my first bear, and I was thrilled to pieces. She was just a white dot to begin with, but as we drew closer I could see her well with the naked eye. For the next half hour, we cruised alongside her and I could follow the bear's steady, swinging gait and watch her every move.

She wasn't exactly how I had imagined a bear would be. Her hindquarters were higher and more massive and her neck was longer and more powerful. Most striking of all was her purposefulness. She was striding along the beach, her head stretched out in front of her, going somewhere that had nothing to do with any watching human. She never gave our ship a glance. Traveling with her, I passed into the bear's world. There are so many wild creatures that just flee at the first sight of humans, so many that you can only hope to see if you hide and keep silent. This bear looked as though she owned the beach.

I didn't know that this bear, which never even looked my way, was going to send my life in a new direction that would lead, after a few twists and turns, to this book. Perhaps that would never have happened if I hadn't begun talking to another passenger who had come up on deck, a wildlife biologist from Canada. He'd begun looking intently at the bear through a powerful tripod-mounted telescope and invited me to take a really close-up look. "She won't make it," he said casually. Make what? "Make it through the year. I've seen her several times this season walking back and forth. She's starving. She should be fat and plump now. Look at her underside and her hind legs; the fur is hanging loose. It's too late for her unless some very good luck comes along."

For a moment I felt angry: this was my very first bear. He explained that she was probably two years old and coming up to her first summer without her mother to protect her. She had not eaten enough in the spring and early summer when there had been plenty of young seals out on the ice. Perhaps she had not been quick enough to learn from her mother how to hunt. Perhaps she had been abandoned too early. Perhaps the ice had vanished too quickly. "She's walking the beach with a purpose," he said.

"She's stretching out her neck, sniffing the air hoping to catch the scent of carrion. If she's lucky she'll find a dead seal washed up, or even better a whale—there are beluga and narwhal around here. If she finds it first, that is. She's young and if a bigger animal gets there before her, she'll be driven away. If there were still ice around she might be able to swim out to it and catch a seal. But we haven't seen ice since we left Resolute."

The blue sea, the beach, and the bear started to look very different. "Why isn't there ice here?" I asked. I was wondering if this was a part of the big Arctic melt. Like everyone else I'd heard stories that the Arctic ice was shrinking and seen pictures of a forlorn bear perched on a tiny ice floe in a bright blue sea. "It's not as simple as that," he replied. "This bay was full of ice last year and the year before. I'm not sure if the ice is really melting away because the world is growing warmer or this is just a bad year." If I wanted to know more about ice, he said, I should go to the ship's bridge. "They are the ones who worry about ice all voyage long. Ask them to show you some ice charts."

So I did. On the bridge there was little time to watch polar bears. The crew and the ice pilot, a local brought on board to help navigate safely through the Arctic waters, were surrounded by radar screens and weather maps. Yes, they had plenty of charts of the ice cover in the region. Far out in the Canadian High Arctic, you are not really alone. Down south in Ottawa the Canadian Ice Service captures images of the Arctic from satellites and downloads maps of the ice onto the Web for everyone to see.

One chart showed the ice concentration, going from a reassuring watery blue for "ice free" through deep greens and on to a bright red for "90 percent to total" ice cover, and a dark gray for "fast ice," that is, ice frozen up and locked to the shoreline.

Another color-coded chart showed ice age, from the mauves of fragile new ice, through the greens of first-year ice and browns of second-year ice, and on to threatening bright reds. This was the multiyear ice that had passed many times through the warmth of summer without melting away and had grown stronger, harder, and thicker. Only heavy icebreakers dare venture into the brown and red zones.

Large triangles dotted the more open waters of the ice charts: "icebergs," explained the pilot. Nearer the Greenland coast, in "iceberg alley," they were everywhere. But heavy sea ice had retreated far to the north, up Nares Strait. Here, off the coast of Devon Island where we were cruising along, the charts showed no color at all: ice free. There was just a patch of greens and browns at Resolute, back where we had called up the icebreaker to take us to open water.

One of the crew pulled out charts from earlier years. Two years before, in the same week, practically all the water between Baffin Island and Greenland had been filled by a huge tongue of first- and second-year ice; most of the ice-free waters off Devon Island where we were sailing now had been frozen right over. Was this the Arctic melt? Staring at the charts, the answer became less certain. They showed that the ice was not so much melting away as endlessly shifting—disappearing from one place and appearing in another, thickening in one bay in one year and then vanishing from it the next. I wanted to know a lot more.

The next year, in 2007, I went along to a conference on the Arctic in Washington, D.C., and there I met Douglas Bancroft, the head of the Canadian Ice Service that had provided those ice charts.1 Or to be more accurate, I became caught up in one of his stories. Bancroft, a tall man with a neat beard that recalls his years as a warship commander, was relating how a group of adventurers had set off for the North Pole from the northern tip of Canada just as the ice had broken away and gone off in the other direction. "They skied one way all day and drifted back the other all night," he said. The explanation for their odd heroics: "Most of them were British." As the only British person at the conference, all eyes fell on me.

Bancroft gave an enthusiastic talk explaining just how dynamic and changeable the Arctic ice was and how many unpredicted events had been taking place in the north, besides the surprise for that polar expedition. In August 2005, for example, the 3,000-year-old Ayles ice shelf had unexpectedly broken up. A gigantic area of ice nine miles long and three miles wide had broken free from the most northerly part of Ellesmere Island, and started drifting around the High Arctic.

Bancroft showed a movie created from a yearlong series of satellite images of the Arctic, the first I had ever seen. With time sped up and a view from outer space that enables you to look down on the whole Arctic from above the North Pole, the Arctic seems, he said, "almost like a dynamic, breathing, living organism, moving and shifting." The ice shivered, shimmered, pulsated, and flowed throughout the Arctic. The ice charts I had seen on board the ship had come alive.

That movie was made early in 2007, before anyone knew that a great and cataclysmic change was just about to come to the Arctic, one that would remove any doubts that the ice was in danger. In the summer of that year, an enormous area of the sea ice suddenly melted away at a speed that no one had seen before or ever imagined could happen. Compared to the previous summer, an extra 625,000 square miles turned to water. That's an area four times that of California. That giant crash grabbed my attention, too, and cemented my determination to understand the reasons why it had taken place and what it might mean for the Arctic and the world.

For decades before, the Arctic's summer ice area had been slowly shrinking, oscillating around a gentle downward trend. That trend had been fast enough to make many people worried even before the great crash of 2007. If it were to continue, many scientists feared that the Arctic might be free of summer ice by the end of the twenty-first century. But other scientists thought that we might just be witnessing a cycle of natural variability, and that the downward trend would eventually reverse and the ice would grow again. The shock of that sudden collapse in the late summer of 2007 shook up all these ideas and forced scientists to think again. All of a sudden there were new predictions that the Arctic might be free of summer ice in a decade rather than a century.

A trip to Japan gave me an opportunity to talk to another Arctic researcher, Koji Shimada. I met him at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, down by the shore and tucked up against a Nissan car factory. His lab runs a famous oceanographic research vessel called the Mirai, but that day all the ships in harbor were slab-sided, gray, windowless monsters built to export Nissan's cars. We sat around a table in his office and he explained his own views on the ice, occasionally punctuated with the expression, "Many people do not agree with me." Shimada is well known for following his own views ("Imagination is the most important thing in science," he told me), so I wasn't surprised to hear that his childhood hero had been Naomi Uemura, the great Japanese explorer who walked alone to the North Pole.

Shimada had made a totally up-to-date, post–2007-crash version of the Arctic ice movie. He had used images from AMSR-E, a Japanese microwave sensor that can see the ice from space, even in the polar night. His film was much scarier. He projected it on the wall of his office and I sat there, feeling as though I were watching a true horror movie. As the days sped by in seconds, the whole of the Arctic's ice turned into a living organism that, in a fit of madness, was tearing itself apart.

Vast areas of ice whirled around the pole and were flung out past Iceland and down into the Atlantic. A steady torrent roared down the Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Huge expanses of ice that had been locked hard to the Canadian islands were suddenly fractured and smashed to pieces, then sucked into an enormous whirlpool of moving ice hundreds of miles across. This was not a "big melt." I was not watching ice gradually turn into water, but a frozen ocean rip itself to bits as a result of forces I did not understand. I asked Shimada to play the movie again, and again. "This is not variation like we have seen in the past," Shimada said to me. "This is now catastrophe."

As I watched that movie a set of questions began to form in my mind. Why is the ice so dynamic and so unlike the "frozen North" I had expected? What is going to happen next? Will the ice all disintegrate and the summer Arctic seas soon be just clear, blue water? Or can the ice recover? I wanted to know if the change was a direct result of global warming and, if so, whether efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions could still save the ice. After a year of reading, talking, and traveling, answers to these big questions have come to occupy the heart of this book, for I could find no other way to satisfy my curiosity and deal with the frustration (which I will explain in a moment) than to settle down and try to write it all out. The reason why the ice is vanishing—the science of Arctic change—was a great labor to understand, because the explanations kept changing as the Arctic sprang new surprises. The explanations that were in vogue when I first began asking questions had been absorbed into bigger answers a year later. Now their shape has become more stable (though nature might yet spring another enormous surprise). My efforts to tackle these big scientific questions, which determine so much else about the Arctic's future, lie at the heart of this book. But they do not form its soul.

On my journeys around the Arctic I had seen ice and icebergs and many of the Arctic's unique creatures—beluga, narwhal, and bowhead whales crossing the seas; ivory gulls sneaking around a bloodied polar bear to snatch a piece of freshly killed seal; curious walrus dragging themselves up on a beach to take a closer look at me; ringed seals following me with a wary gaze from the ice; and baby murre taking desperate leaps from their cliff ledge nests as they set out into the world, with their fathers calling them shrilly from the sea below. And I had seen a great many more bears, although I still wonder about the fate of my very first and whether she had the good fortune to survive that summer.

I traveled around Svalbard, Alaska, Norway, the Canadian islands, and both coasts of Greenland. My travels took me to Inuit communities in Canada, Greenland, and Alaska, and to stories of the troubled past and the rapid political changes that were arriving as indigenous peoples sought to run their own affairs and put a colonial past behind them. I heard stories from hunters of the first time they killed a polar bear, and listened to a child whose dream was, "to be ten so I can go out hunting on the ice with my Dad."

All too often, the city folk down south forget that the Arctic is a peopled place, and are unaware of how its inhabitants live. That can lead to some serious misunderstandings, few echoes of which reach the south. Sitting by the harbor at Tasiilaq in eastern Greenland, I was treated to a long diatribe on how European animal rights campaigners and environmental groups had impoverished tiny Greenland villages whose names I had never even heard. (I guessed trouble was coming when the first question was, "Are you from Greenpeace?" to which I could honestly answer, "No.") The campaign to ban the import of seal products, intended to stop the clubbing of baby seals off Newfoundland far away to the south, had made it impossible for Inuit to sell sealskin taken in their separate hunt of adult seals, even though the income was vital for them. This great injustice to the original people of the north and the perceived insult to their way of life from ignorant southerners were all new to me, but I did agree to go out hunting seal the next day.

The soul of this book lies with the people and creatures of the Arctic. They provide its beginning and its center and make the fate of the Arctic matter. But to talk about them, I had to look at many other things too. I needed to understand the new quarrels between nations over who owned the Arctic, where their borders should lie, and whether a boom in oil, gas, minerals, and shipping would transform the economy of the Arctic as the ice melted away. To do that I had to talk to politicians and icebreaker engineers and gain an acquaintance with oil prices, rig design, undersea pipeline–laying techniques, tanker specifications, and the horror of oil spills. All these topics have their place in this book, for I wanted to see the Arctic as a whole.

This was the cause of my frustration. No matter who I spoke to, the big picture was always lacking. I discovered that there are no experts on the Arctic and no grand sources for knowledge. There are specialists in scores of academic disciplines that each deal with a tiny part of the whole, from the behavior of whales to the patterns of ocean currents. There are politicians who worry about the borders of the Arctic, geologists who focus on gathering the evidence to define them, and whales and seals that swim right over them. Lawyers debate the 104 words of Article 234 (on ice-covered areas) of the Law of the Sea, while engineers simply see the ice as a set of complex mechanical forces that their rigs and icebreakers must withstand. Environmentalists are certain that drilling for oil in the Arctic should be banned at once while indigenous people want to see some of the world's wealth come their way. For the big picture that I was after, embracing people and ice, animals and borders, oil and ships and more, there turned out to be nobody. I had to assemble what I wanted to know by talking to well over a hundred different experts, listening to almost three hundred lectures at conferences around the world, reading many scientific papers, and seeking out books that told me what explorers had seen long ago.

There is, I think, an important reason for this excess of disconnected information. Only quite recently have people begun to see the Arctic as a region in its own right. Over the centuries, it has been a last frontier for explorers racing to the North Pole or searching for a new trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It has been a source of quick wealth for adventurers taking its whale oils, walrus ivory, fox furs, and bear skins. It has been a Cold War border, rimmed by the defensive early warning radars of the United States and the Soviet Union, crisscrossed by the secret trails of submarines hiding under the ice, and with the ever present possibility that the air would fill with nuclear missiles in an all-out nuclear strike.

But most of the time, the Arctic has just been a long, narrow white space running across the top of maps of the world. A new view of the Arctic as a region of its own, long occupied by its own people and centered on the pole, has emerged only recently. That view owes much to Inuit political activity. Inuit came out of eastern Siberia and spread right across Alaska and Canada to Greenland, long before any such nations existed. When, in the late 1970s, Inuit set up their own Circumpolar Council to represent all their people around the Arctic, regardless of which nation they now found themselves in, they were the first to make us see the way the top of the world was interconnected.

The vanishing ice has cemented the circumpolar view. Change is coming to every part of the Arctic. As the ice retreats we can see just how close are the nations that ring the pole and how similar are the issues they and all the creatures of the Arctic face. Nothing has driven the circumpolar view forward more than the International Polar Year that lasted until the spring of 2009. Thousands of scientists—natural and social—tackled the myriad issues that are needed to form a big picture of the Arctic. My worry now is not that too little is known, but that so much is known which has not been synthesized.

The aim of this book is to provide a broad sketch of the whole, so that its different parts are recognizable and in the right places, and none are lost in an excess of detail. I think that I might be the first to attempt this overambitious goal, but I think it is important to try. The Arctic is changing so fast that no one—not the scientists that study it, the politicians who want to control it, the oilmen who want to exploit it, or the indigenous people who call it home—can keep up. The only people who appear to have gone before me, with an even bigger mission, are the brave authors of a couple of travel guides to the entire Arctic. I hope that they did not find it a foolhardy endeavor.

By writing about the Arctic as a region, though, I don't want to reinforce the notion of its being a separate, distant, remote place. Nothing could be further from reality; the Arctic is ever more entangled with the south and ever more at the mercy of decisions made elsewhere, often without the slightest consideration for the top of the world.

One day in Greenland I was out on a long trip in a little boat amid cold ice floes. We stopped for lunch on a tiny islet, where I began to run around quickly in circles to restore my circulation. After coming across a ruined grave with a human skull and bones clearly visible inside it—who knows who died there—I decided my exertions might be disrespectful. I sat down quietly to eat. Raw narwhal was served in the chilly wind. My gracious Inuit host fished around in his many layers of clothing and pulled out a small bottle, saying, "I don't know if you like this but I find it really goes well with narwhal." It was a bottle of soy sauce. Two thoughts flashed through my mind. One was how connected the whole world has become, now that soy sauce is served on a lonely Arctic islet that is home only to an unnamed grave. The other was that while eating raw whale might seem exotic, the moment you add soy sauce, you realize it is just the same old sashimi that you can eat in any Japanese restaurant.

This book does not seek to make the Arctic exotic, although I found much there that was strange. The world does not need a new form of "orientalism" centered on the north. Its focus instead is mostly on the Arctic seas, rarely traveling far into the surrounding lands, in part because of the central importance of sea and ice to the northern people, ecosystems, and economy. I only stray a little when describing the lives and future of the reindeer people of Russia. Elsewhere in the Arctic, the sea provides sustenance for those who live there, but in Russia the reindeer takes the place of the whale.

In part I have focused on the seas to keep this book to a reasonable length. Had I more space and time I would have written more of the peculiar beauty of the Arctic lands,2 especially those polar deserts where amid arid, red-brown soil and limitless horizons, tussocks of pale yellow Arctic poppy grow, their cup-shaped flowers seeking the low sun's endless circling, possessed with a fragility that seems so out of place in the harsh North. It is with sadness that I pass them by, for, with the coming warming of the Arctic, these rare deserts, lying close to the shore-bound ice of the most northerly Arctic islands, are under the greatest threat.3 They will disappear soon, before the children of today become adults, and I have been privileged to see them.

One other issue remains, that of "The Arctic's Revenge." Did we really think that we could make so many changes to the far-off Arctic and strip it of its ice, without the Arctic biting back? If we ever did, we were foolish.

Reprinted from After the Ice with permission from Smithsonian Books. Copyright (c) 2009 by Alun Anderson

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Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic

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