Melting Arctic Ice Imperils Polar Bears The National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that sea ice could reach all-time record lows in these last few weeks of the Arctic summer. Margaret Williams, who directs the World Wildlife Fund's Alaska office, discusses how that affects polar bears.
NPR logo

Melting Arctic Ice Imperils Polar Bears

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Melting Arctic Ice Imperils Polar Bears

Melting Arctic Ice Imperils Polar Bears

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Governor Palin has sued the federal government trying to reverse the decision to put the polar bear on the threatened species list. Plain says there isn't enough evidence to support that lifting. She says the lifting could harm oil and gas development and she says climate model showing the continued loss of sea ice are unreliable.

But this week, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that sea ice is at its second-lowest level since they started keeping records three decades ago, and could reach an all-time record low within weeks.

And as sea ice shrinks, that puts polar bears in trouble. Earlier this month, government scientists flying over Alaska's Chuck Chi Sea spotted 10 polar bears swimming in open water, an unusually high number.

Yesterday, Margaret Williams flew out over the Arctic Ocean with the Coast Guard looking for polar bears. Williams directs the Alaska office of the World Wildlife Fund, and she joins us from Anchorage. Ms. Williams, what did you see out there?

Ms. MARGARET WILLIAMS (World Wildlife Fund): Melissa, we flew for miles and miles before we saw any ice at all. We took off out of Barrow, and about 60 miles from shore we saw our first bear, and it was actually an adult female bear with a little cub.

They were both in open water. There was some ice around, but it was very poor ice, certainly far from ideal polar bear habitat. It was kind of a slurry of open water with little pieces of ice floating around, so not what polar bears really like to live and hunt on.

BLOCK: So that was one sighting. Did you see other polar bears in the Water, too?

Ms. WILLIAMS: We did. We saw three other bears. They were adult bears. Two of them were swimming. One was on a round sort of large iceberg. And it's not unusual to see polar bears swimming, but what's unusual is to see this type of ice condition.

And it's not what polar bears thrive on. They need solid ice. They need ice to hunt on, and they need seals and prey, which are found in the productive waters and also depend on the sea ice.

BLOCK: I do think of polar bears as being exceptionally strong swimmers, but this is a worrisome thing to see this many bears in open water with so little ice around them.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, it really is, and it was both thrilling and heart-rending to see these mom and cubs together, this pair of bears, knowing that they're going to have a really tough road ahead.

They may have enough tiny bit of ice to stay on for the next month, but the water is melting the ice from beneath, so literally the ice is melting beneath their feet.

In addition to polar bears, we saw thousands of walruses out on the sea ice, on the little pieces of floating ice platforms. And walruses are very similar to polar bears in that they depend on sea ice for survival.

They rest on the sea ice. They dive and eat from the sea ice. They dive down to the bottom of the sea. So they are just like the polar bear. They are very dependent on the state of the sea ice. And we are extremely concerned that if ice is melting beneath the feet of the polar bear, it's also going to be melting beneath the walruses.

All of these species depend on the sea ice, and the sea ice is an incredible little ecosystem. The plankton starts to bloom and blossom on the base of the sea ice and it becomes the basis for a very, very rich food chain in the Arctic Ocean. So we are very concerned about what happens in the next month as the sea ice continues to melt.

BLOCK: You do see projections about summer sea ice, that there could be no summer sea ice at all in anywhere from five to maybe 20, 25 years. I've heard it referred to as a death spiral. What did it look like from above? What were you seeing?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, we saw a lot of open water, and then we saw ribbons of ice, little slurries of ice like - as though someone had poured a slushy across a vast ocean.

There were two such ribbons of ice separated for - by about 50 miles. And in the first ribbon of ice, that's where we saw the walruses and the polar bears, and because that slurry of ice was above the continental shelf, which means shallow water, productive water in the place where polar bear and walrus like to feed.

The next ribbon of ice, which was about 100 miles out from shore, was in deeper water. We didn't see much life there. We didn't see any walrus. We didn't see any bears out there. So that's what happens when the ice starts to recede into the deeper waters.

If the polar bears are forced into those deeper waters, they are in an area without much to eat, and while the bears that we saw may have to face a choice: do we swim to shore, where there's not much food, or do we swim further north to another area of ice where there may not be much food either?

BLOCK: Well, Margaret Williams, thanks very much.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Margaret Williams directs the Alaska office of the World Wildlife Fund. She spoke with us from Anchorage.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.