Last week, scientists once again sounded the alarm over the effects that a warming climate is having on Arctic ecosystems. This time, that warning came from Norway, where scientists are reporting that the fjords on the west coast of the Svalbard Islands, a Norwegian archipelago near the Arctic circle, have been totally ice-free for the past two years (even in winter) and that the Island's Esmark glacier has shrunk by nearly two miles.
"Animals have dealt with change in the past but it's the rate at which the climate is changing and is expected to change which is frightening," says Kit Kovacs, the head of the Norwegian Polar Institute's biodiversity programme. For species that are accustomed to living in polar conditions, "there is nowhere north for them to go," she adds.
Among those animals is a population of polar bears, who make their home on the Svalbard Islands. Incidents of cannibalism among these bears have recently been documented by scientists, who speculate that they may be caused by nutritional stress brought on by global warming's effect on the bear's food supply.
Ironically, the Islands were recently chosen as a repository for a Global Seed Vault to protect samples of important plant species from around the world -- in part because of the Island's cold temperatures and polar bears who, it was thought, would provide a natural "guard" for the facility. Not if they ain't there.