What Happens To Polar Bears As Arctic Ice Shrinks? Former editor-in-chief of New Scientist magazine predicts that the killer whale will usurp the polar bear as the king of the Arctic by the year 2050.
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What Happens To Polar Bears As Arctic Ice Shrinks?

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What Happens To Polar Bears As Arctic Ice Shrinks?

What Happens To Polar Bears As Arctic Ice Shrinks?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122650964/122656852" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, host:

And as Mark Serreze just said, this winter's Arctic warming isn't related to long-term climate change. But to science writer Alun Anderson, the big picture trend is clear; the Arctic sea ice will eventually disappear. And he's written a book about it. It's called "After the Ice." And Alun Anderson joins me from London.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ALUN ANDERSON (Author, "After the Ice"): Thank you.

RAZ: You say that climate change is more acute in the Arctic than anywhere else, that it's sort of the canary in the coal mine. Give us an example of what you mean.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, that's exactly right. And we know that by the fact that the ice there is disappearing so rapidly. You know, every summer now the ice is vanishing from the Arctic at a speed we would never have even thought of a couple of decades ago.

RAZ: You describe something in your book, what you call the Arctic revenge, something that will...


RAZ: ...affect us living below the Arctic, I presume at some point.

Mr. ANDERSON: Once the tundra that rims the Arctic starts to thaw, what we'll see is greenhouse gases pouring out of that tundra. Already in the warmer points around the Arctic, you'll see very odd bubblings in a lake. What you can do if you're fairly adventurous is reach out over that little pond and light a match above that bubbling and you'll just get a poof of flame.

That is methane bubbling out of lakes as they thaw and microorganisms start to be able to digest basically the humus, the rotten material at the bottom of the lake.

Elsewhere, frozen ground is bubbling out carbon dioxide. These are powerful greenhouse gases. As time goes by, the more it thaws, the more it will pour out, the more the Earth will warm. That's number one. But there are a couple of other things it's got in mind for you too.

RAZ: A couple of other things?

Mr. ANDERSON: There's the well-known one, of course, of sea level rise. Sitting on top of Greenland is a vast icecap. As that melts away, it pours back into the sea and raises sea levels worldwide. If the whole thing melts, sea level rise will be about 23 feet around the world.

RAZ: That's not going to happen overnight, right? I mean, this isn't something that's going to happen in our lifetime?

Mr. ANDERSON: No. It would take hundreds, probably thousands of years for all the ice to melt. But once it really gets going, it will become unstoppable.

RAZ: And the consequences beyond rising sea levels are changes in the weather, for example?

Mr. ANDERSON: Yes. The wider changes will be changes in the weather and so on. But, you know, for the people of the Arctic and the animals that live in the Arctic, I think we've run out of time because the ice they depend on is going. 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 now that we're able to stop it.

RAZ: How long will it take, based on your estimate, before we reach a point where there is no longer any ice in the Arctic in the summertime?

Mr. ANDERSON: The very earliest estimates are 2013. Other estimates are 2050. But a broad consensus among scientists seems to be 2030 now.

RAZ: Alun Anderson, what will the Arctic look like in the summertime by the middle of this century?

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, it'll be a mostly open sea. And for me, I guess, the biggest shock is, you know, I always think of the polar bears when I think of the Arctic. It just comes automatically. The polar bear is the king of the Arctic, the top predator. It'll be gone. And in its place, we will see killer whales. The killer whale will be the new top predator of the Arctic. A killer whale living in open water will be the symbol of the Arctic, you know, replacing a bear on ice. And that's an astonishing change.

RAZ: Describe for me some of the people that you encountered living above the Arctic Circle. I mean, about half of the people who live in the Arctic Circle are members of an indigenous tribe and the other half - primarily in Russia, as you describe - are people who sort of settled in the area.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. Well, my very first visit to the Arctic was when I landed at a place called Grise Fiord in the very, very northern part of Canada. And there, I was really shocked, because walking on the beach I saw seals that had been hunted, other seals that had been cut up. There was the head of a narwhal with its pointed lance - the one that inspired the myth of the unicorn -sitting there.

This was a real hunting community. And for me, used to shopping in a supermarket, I was just stunned. But a few months later when I understood how the Arctic worked, I did go out hunting seal with some Inuit people and got to have a feel of how they felt and how they lived.

RAZ: And in your book you make the argument that it's not hunting of seals or of the narwhal or the polar bears that is threatening the Arctic but it is human behavior in most of the rest of the world that is destroying the Arctic.

Mr. ANDERSON: Yes, of course. It's the warming that we are generating by filling the air with greenhouse gases that's really hammering the Arctic now. And I have to say it's the third time for them up there. The first wave of southerners were whalers who slaughtered huge numbers of whales and made it very difficult for them to live there. The second wave was air pollution going up south and poisoning the ice, and now we're doing it again with global warming. So, they've had it pretty tough from us southerners.

RAZ: I want to ask you about the politics of the Arctic.


RAZ: Because as you write, there are actually serious national security implications for the ice melt, for what's going on in the Arctic, particularly with respect, for example, to U.S.-Russia relations. I mean, there are disputes over who owns what the closer you get to the North Pole, right?

Mr. ANDERSON: Absolutely. You can't claim the actual water, the fish or any sort of territorial right, but you can get everything that's on the sea bottom, which means oil, gas, possibly minerals. So, that's what everybody's after, the rights to those.

I think a very serious problem is developing. As the ice is turning to water, the area becomes much more accessible. As it becomes accessible, you need to be able to police and patrol it. And nobody has the capacity to police and patrol it at the moment.

RAZ: What needs to happen from a policy perspective in your view right now to preserve the Arctic?

Mr. ANDERSON: Two big things. The first is, don't put any more stresses on the Arctic. So, strict regulation on drilling for oil, any ships trying to go through the Arctic, you know, good search and rescue - if there ever were an oil spill let's make sure we could deal with it quickly - so, and let's not do anything else that's going to mess up the Arctic. Control that in a moment. We don't have the rules, the regulations, and we don't have the ships, the planes to look after the place.

And the second thing is, of course, to try to tackle global warming and cut back on our greenhouse gas emissions. And the faster we can do that the better.

RAZ: That's Alun Anderson. He is the former editor-in-chief of New Scientist magazine and the author of the book, "After the Ice: Life, Death and Geopolitics in a New Arctic."

Alun Anderson, thank you very much.

Mr. ANDERSON: Thank you.

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