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13 Oct 2008

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It was yet another sign that something is going wrong in the Arctic Circle. The polar bear was swimming in open water in the Chukchi Seas off Alaska, over 60 miles from land. It was one of 9 bears US scientists spotted in one day in mid-August. donatenow_savethebearThe sightings came in the wake of a report from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center that Arctic sea-ice was declining at an unprecedented rate. The ice that is the bears' home was literally melting beneath their feet.

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Polar bears spend most of their lives on the sea ice. Climate change means that each summer the ice breaks up more and more, leaving the bears facing longer and longer swims between feeding, mating and denning grounds.

Steven Amstrup, senior polar bear scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, said the 9 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 over 50 miles can be exhausting.

"We have some observations of bears swimming in to 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."

The Los Angeles Times reports that observers have no indication of the fate of the nine polar bears in the Chukchi Sea.

30 years ago there would still be 7 million sq kilometres of ice left at the end of an Arctic models. That's dropped by 40% already. Most alarmingly, the rate of thinning occurring annually is running far ahead of what the scientific models predicted. Scientists who until recently said that the Arctic might be ice-free in summer by 2070 now say it could happen within a decade.

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What happens in the Arctic will have a direct affect on the rest of us. The ice-cap acts as a giant mirror reflecting the sun's rays back out to space. By contrast, the dark ocean waters absorb the sun's energy fueling a vicious cycle of heating and melting. The sea-ice also holds in place land glaciers on Greenland and elsewhere around the Arctic circle. The melting will hasten their slide into the sea, raising sea-levels. Thanks to how weather systems work the decline in sea ice is likely to lead to less rain in North America and more in Europe. Most of all, the Arctic is the canary in the coalmine of global warming. The dramatic changes we are seeing there will be matched around the globe unless we act.

We have a decade to contain climate change by getting global emissions on a downward path. That means getting a good deal at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in just over a year. It means the EU continuing to take the lead internationally by adopting a strong climate and energy package in the next 6 months. And it means Ireland finally getting serious about delivering on its commitments.

Friends of the Earth works in Ireland, Brussels and in 70 countries around the world to make sure that political leaders know that people want action on climate change and to hold politicians accountable for their promises.

We depend on you to support our campaigning work just as much as the polar bear depends on the sea ice. Please support our work to communicate the urgency of the climate challenge to decision-makers. If our politicians don't get it the bears will.

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