WASHINGTON, DC -- If current global warming models hold true, Santa may soon have to find alternative transportation -- such as a solar-powered sleigh -- to deliver the gifts this Christmas.
A new report from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says that Arctic wildlife such as reindeer (known as caribou in North America), polar bears, ringed seals, and a host of plant species and migratory birds are all threatened by global warming and its effects -- earlier springs, loss of pack ice, and dwindling/shifting food supplies.
The report findings have been underlined by reports that thousands of reindeer in the Russian Northeast may starve to death due to unusual weather events (4,500 have already died). Warmer than usual temperatures earlier this year caused large-scale melting that has now frozen and covered the animals' food supply with a concrete-like layer of ice. Also, two herds of reindeer in Alaska are being forced south from their regular wintering area due to the same situation. Half of the Central Arctic herd is now missing, including 25 reindeer wearing radio collars. Scientists say extreme weather events like this are occurring more frequently due to climate change.
"Global warming is threatening Arctic ecosystems and their peoples from all sides as never before in history, said Jay R. Malcolm of the University of Toronto's Forestry Faculty. "Unless urgent actions are taken to control fossil fuel burning, we may witness the end of an ecosystem in the next few generations."
The situation is serious considering that many of the world's most distinctive mammals, such as walruses, certain seals, arctic foxes, polar bears, bowhead whales and narwhals are only found in the arctic. Additionally, 15 percent of the world's bird species breed in the arctic. Among the report's findings:
- detailed climate models suggest that a doubling of greenhouse gas concentrations will lead to a 30 percent reduction in the tundra available to Arctic species;
- the climate is changing at a faster rate than anything in the recent past, including the ice ages, and the majority of arctic organisms have never witnessed changes of this sort;
- warmer weather will cause more seal snow caves to collapse, exposing seal pups to the bitter cold. Faced with fewer seal prey, polar bear populations would also decline;
- polar bears, which are entirely dependent on pack ice, could become extinct if the Arctic Ocean were to become ice free for long enough;
- thinning sea ice allows increasing numbers of non-indigenous grizzly bears, hunters, tourists and ships, to threaten the lifestyle, culture and ecosystem of the indigenous Inuit populations.
"Arctic organisms from the smallest plant to the largest mammal are reliant on each other for survival," said Adam Markham, director of WWF's Climate Change Campaign. "Global warming could cause a domino effect, resulting in massive loss of species diversity."
Arctic reindeer herds best illustrate the dilemma. Reindeer populations depend on a delicate balance of climate, food supplies and predators (or lack thereof) to maintain their numbers, and a slight deviation in any of these factors can have dire consequences.
An example is the porcupine caribou herd, whose numbers are currently stable at 150,000. The herd's traditional calving grounds are a good mix of strong food supply, lack of predators such as wolves and grizzlies, and sanctuary from biting flies and mosquitos.
However, consensus of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB), a monitoring group, is that eviction from the calving grounds would have dire consequences for the herd. Global warming appears to be doing just that. Earlier and earlier springs are moving the herd's food supply further north, pushing the animals away from their traditional feeding grounds, and placing them on a collision course with new oil development -- development that ironically is being made easier by the global warming-induced breakup of sea ice.
Further east in the Canadian arctic, other caribou herds are also having difficulties handling the climate. Field data suggest that the predicted 2-4 degree temperature increase in the coming decades would result in a linear increase in the level of insect harassment, and a corresponding loss of energy reserves. Add this to a predicted 30-50 percent increase in winter snowfall and the associated increase in energy needed to dig for food, and we could see anywhere from a 40 percent decline to a complete reproductive failure among the herds.