Polar Bears Taking the Long Swim

By David L. Brown

One of a very few supposed “errors” in Al Gore’s book and movie “An Inconvenient Truth” was his claim that polar bears were drowning while attempting to swim across wide gaps in the Arctic Ocean. It was charged that the statement was anecdotal and had not been documented. Of course, the global warming deniers proceeded to build on the flimsy foundation of that supposed error a complete case that everything Gore said was a pack of lies.

But there is truth to the problem faced by the northern bears, whose natural range is on the floating ice cap — ice that is now breaking up and melting. They can swim, but they are not naturally aquatic animals, so the melting ice is a genuine problem for them.

And here is the image that illustrates their plight, as seen here on the LiveScience web site today:

080822-ap-polar-bear-ff.jpg

Here is an excerpt from the AP story reported on LiveScience:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Nine polar bears were observed in one day swimming in open ocean off Alaska’s northwest coast, an increase from previous surveys that may indicate warming conditions are forcing bears to make riskier, long-distance swims to stable sea ice or land.

The bears were spotted in the Chukchi Sea on a flight by a federal marine contractor, Science Applications International Corp.

It was hired for the Minerals Management Service in advance of future offshore oil development. The MMS in February leased 2.76 million acres within an offshore area slightly smaller than Pennsylvania.

Observers Saturday were looking for whales but also recorded walrus and polar bears, said project director Janet Clark. Many were swimming north and ranged from 15 to 65 miles off shore, she said.

Further down, the article included this:

Steven Amstrup, senior polar bear scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, said the bears could have been on a patch of ice that broke up northwest of Alaska’s coast.

“The bears that had been on that last bit of ice that remained over shallow shelf waters, are now swimming either toward land or toward the rest of the sea ice, which is a considerable distance north,” he said in an e-mail response to questions.

It probably is not a big deal for a polar bear in good condition to swim 10 or 15 miles, Amstrup said, but swims of 50 to 100 miles could be exhausting.

“We have some observations of bears swimming into shore when the sea ice was not visible on the horizon,” he said. “In some of these cases, the bears arrive so spent energetically, that they literally don’t move for a couple days after hitting shore.”

As the polar ice recedes to greater distances and eventually disappears, there is no doubt that polar bears will be drowning, perhaps in large numbers, just as Gore reported. At the time he prepared “An Inconvenient Truth” it may have been only anecdotal, but pictures and reports such as this show how very endangered this species really is.

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