Receding ice leaves Canada’s polar bears at rising risk

1 / 3
A polar bear observes at a Beluga whale pod passing along the shoreline of the Hudson Bay near Churchill on August 5, 2022. (Olivier Morin / AFP)
2 / 3
A female polar bear stands along the shoreline of the Hudson Bay near Churchill on August 5, 2022. (Olivier Morin / AFP)
3 / 3
A female polar bear walks between rocks to find something to eat along the shoreline of the Hudson Bay near Churchill on August 5, 2022. Olivier Morin / AFP)
Short Url
Updated 29 September 2022

Receding ice leaves Canada’s polar bears at rising risk

  • The fate of the polar bear should alarm everyone, says Flavio Lehner, a climate scientist at Cornell University who was part of the expedition, because the Arctic is a good “barometer” of the planet’s health

CHURCHILL Canada: Sprawled on rocky ground far from sea ice, a lone Canadian polar bear sits under a dazzling sun, his white fur utterly useless as camouflage.
It’s mid-summer on the shores of Hudson Bay and life for the enormous male has been moving in slow motion, far from the prey that keeps him alive: seals. 
This is a critical time for the region’s polar bears.
Every year from late June when the bay ice disappears — shrinking until it dots the blue vastness like scattered confetti — they must move onto shore to begin a period of forced fasting.
But that period is lasting longer and longer as temperatures rise — putting them in danger’s way.
Once on solid ground, the bears “typically have very few options for food,” explains Geoff York, a biologist with Polar Bear International (PBI).
York, an American, spends several weeks each year in Churchill, a small town on the edge of the Arctic in the northern Canadian province of Manitoba. There he follows the fortunes of the endangered animals.
This is one of the best spots from which to study life on Hudson Bay, though transportation generally requires either an all-terrain vehicle adapted to the rugged tundra, or an inflatable boat for navigating the bay’s waters.
York invited an AFP team to join him on an expedition in early August.
Near the impressively large male bear lazing in the sun is a pile of fishbones — nowhere near enough to sustain this 11-foot (3.5-meter), 1,300-pound (600-kilo) beast.
“There could be a beluga whale carcass they might be able to find, (or a) naive seal near shore, but generally they’re just fasting,” York says.
“They lose nearly a kilogram of body weight every day that they’re on land.”
Climate warming is affecting the Arctic three times as fast as other parts of the world — even four times, according to some recent studies. So sea ice, the habitat of the polar bear, is gradually disappearing.
A report published two years ago in the journal Nature Climate Change suggested that this trend could lead to the near-extinction of these majestic animals: 1,200 of them were counted on the western shores of Hudson Bay in the 1980s. Today the best estimate is 800. 




A female polar bear stands along the shoreline of the Hudson Bay near Churchill on August 5, 2022. (Olivier Morin / AFP)

Cycle of life disrupted

Each summer, sea ice begins melting earlier and earlier, while the first hard freeze of winter comes later and later. Climate change thus threatens the polar bears’ very cycle of life.
They have fewer opportunities to build up their reserves of fat and calories before the period of summer scarcity.
The polar bear — technically known as the Ursus maritimus — is a meticulous carnivore that feeds principally on the white fat that envelops and insulates a seal’s body.
But these days this superpredator of the Arctic sometimes has to feed on seaweed — as a mother and her baby were seen doing not far from the port of Churchill, the self-declared “Polar Bear Capital.”
If female bears go more than 117 days without adequate food, they struggle to nurse their young, said Steve Amstrup, an American who is PBI’s lead scientist. Males, he adds, can go 180 days.
As a result, births have declined, and it has become much rarer for a female to give birth to three cubs, once a common occurrence.
It is a whole ecosystem in decline, and one that 54-year-old York — with his short hair and rectangular glasses — knows by heart after spending more than 20 years roaming the Arctic, first for the ecology organization WWF and now for PBI.
During a capture in Alaska, a bear sunk its fangs into his leg.
Another time, while entering what he thought was an abandoned den, he came nose-to-snout with a female. York, normally a quiet man, says he “yelled as loud as I ever have in my life.”
Today, these enormous beasts live a precarious existence.
“Here in Hudson Bay, in the western and southern parts, polar bears are spending up to a month longer on shore than their parents or grandparents did,” York says.
As their physical condition declines, he says, their tolerance for risk rises, and “that might bring them into interaction with people (which) can lead to conflict instead of co-existence.”

“Prison” for bears

Binoculars in hand, Ian Van Nest, a provincial conservation officer, keeps an eye out through the day on the rocks surrounding Churchill, where the bears like to hide.
In this town of 800 inhabitants, which is only accessible by air and train but not by any roads, the bears have begun frequenting the local dump, a source of easy — but potentially harmful — food for them.




Provincial Polar Bear Patrol Officer Ian Van Nest on patrol on the shoreline of the Hudson Bay outside Churchill on August 7, 2022. (Olivier Morin / AFP)

They could be seen ripping open trash bags, eating plastic or getting their snouts trapped in food tins amid piles of burning waste.
Since then, the town has taken precautions: The dump is now guarded by cameras, fences and patrols.
Across Churchill, people leave cars and houses unlocked in case someone needs to find urgent shelter after an unpleasant encounter with this large land-based carnivore.
Posted on walls around town are the emergency phone numbers to reach Van Nest or his colleagues.
When they get an urgent call, they hop in their pickup truck armed with a rifle and a spray can of repellent, wearing protective flak jackets.
Van Nest, who is bearded and in his 30s, takes the job seriously, given the rising number of polar bears in the area.
Sometimes they can be scared off with just “the horn on your vehicle,” he tells AFP.
But other times “we might have to get on foot and grab our shotguns and cracker shells,” which issue an explosive sound designed to frighten the animal, “and head onto the rocks and pursue that bear.”
Some areas are watched more closely than others — notably around schools as children are arriving in the morning “to ensure that the kids are going to be safe.”
There have been some close calls, like the time in 2013 when a woman was grievously injured by a bear in front of her house, before a neighbor — clad in pajamas and slippers — ran out wielding only his snow shovel to scare the animal away.
Sometimes the animals have to be sedated, then winched up by a helicopter to be transported to the north, or kept in a cage until winter, when they can again feed on the bay.
Churchill’s only “prison” is inhabited entirely by bears, a hangar whose 28 cells can fill up in the autumn as the creatures maraud in mass around town while waiting for the ice to re-form in November.

Barometer of planet's health

The fate of the polar bear should alarm everyone, says Flavio Lehner, a climate scientist at Cornell University who was part of the expedition, because the Arctic is a good “barometer” of the planet’s health.
Since the 1980s, the ice pack in the bay has decreased by nearly 50 percent in summer, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.
“We see the more — the faster — changes here, because it is warming particularly fast,” says Lehner, who is Swiss.
The region is essential to the health of the global climate because the Arctic, he says, effectively provides the planet’s “air conditioning.”
“There’s this important feedback mechanism of sea ice and snow in general,” he says, with frozen areas reflecting 80 percent of the sun’s rays, providing a cooling effect.
When the Arctic loses its capacity to reflect those rays, he said, there will be consequences for temperatures around the globe.
Thus, when sea ice melts, the much darker ocean’s surface absorbs 80 percent of the sun’s rays, accelerating the warming trend.
A few years ago, scientists feared that the Arctic’s summer ice pack was rapidly reaching a climatic “tipping point” and, above a certain temperature, would disappear for good.
But more recent studies show the phenomenon could be reversible, Lehner says.
“Should we ever be able to bring temperatures down again, sea ice will come back,” he says.
That said, the impact for now is pervasive.
“In the Arctic, climate change is impacting all species,” says Jane Waterman, a biologist at the University of Manitoba. “Every single thing is being affected by climate change.”
Permafrost — defined as land that is permanently frozen for two successive years — has begun to melt, and in Churchill the very contours of the land have shifted, damaging rail lines and the habitat of wild species.
The entire food chain is under threat, with some non-native species, like certain foxes and wolves, appearing for the first time, endangering Arctic species.
Nothing is safe, says Waterman, from the tiniest bacteria to enormous whales.

Beluya whales also affected

That includes the beluga whales that migrate each summer — by the tens of thousands — from Arctic waters to the refuge of the Hudson Bay.
These small white whales are often spotted in the bay’s vast blue waters.




A polar bear swims to catch a beluga whale along the coast of Hudson Bay near Churchill on August 9, 2022. (Olivier Morin / AFP)

Swimming in small groups, they like to follow the boats of scientists who have come to study them, seemingly taking pleasure in showing off their large round heads and spouting just feet from captivated observers.
The smallest ones, gray in color, cling to their mothers’ backs in this estuary, with its relatively warm waters, where they find protection from killer whales and plentiful nourishment.
But there has been “a shift in prey availability for beluga whales in some areas of the Arctic,” explains Valeria Vergara, an Argentine researcher who has spent her life studying the beluga.
As the ice cover shrinks, “there’s less under the surface of the ice for the phytoplankton that in turn will feed the zooplankton that in turn will feed big fish,” says Vergara, who is with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
The beluga has to dive deeper to find food, and that uses up precious energy.
And another danger lurks: Some climate models suggest that as early as 2030, with the ice fast melting, boats will be able to navigate the Hudson Bay year-round.
Sound pollution is a major problem for the species — known as the “canary of the seas” — whose communication depends on the clicking and whistling sounds it makes.
The beluga depends on sound-based communication to determine its location, find its way and to locate food, Vergara says.
Thanks to a hydrophone on the “Beluga Boat” that Vergara uses, humans can monitor the “conversations” of whales far below the surface.
Vergara, 53, describes their communications as “very complex,” and she can distinguish between the cries made by mother whales keeping in contact with their youngsters.
To the untrained ear, the sound is a cacophony, but clearly that of an animated community. Scientists wonder, however, how much longer such communities will last?
Far from the Arctic ice one lonely beluga became lost in the waters of France’s Seine river before dying in August. And in May a polar bear meandered its way deep into Canada’s south, shocking those who discovered it along the Saint Lawrence River.


US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

Updated 04 December 2022

US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

  • Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east

KYIV: The head of US intelligence says fighting in Russia’s war in Ukraine is running at a “reduced tempo” and suggests Ukrainian forces could have brighter prospects in coming months.
Avril Haines alluded to past allegations by some that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisers could be shielding him from bad news — for Russia — about war developments, and said he “is becoming more informed of the challenges that the military faces in Russia.”
“But it’s still not clear to us that he has a full picture of at this stage of just how challenged they are,” the US director of national intelligence said late Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
Looking ahead, Haines said, “honestly we’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict” and her team expects that both sides will look to refit, resupply, and reconstitute for a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive in the spring.
“But we actually have a fair amount of skepticism as to whether or not the Russians will be in fact prepared to do that,” she said. “And I think more optimistically for the Ukrainians in that timeframe.”
In recent weeks, Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east, near the town of Bakhmut, while shelling sites in the city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces liberated last month after an 8-month Russian occupation.
In his nightly address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lashed out at Western efforts to crimp Russia’s crucial oil industry, a key source of funds for Putin’s war machine, saying their $60-per-barrel price cap on imports of Russian oil was insufficient.
“It is not a serious decision to set such a limit for Russian prices, which is quite comfortable for the budget of the terrorist state,” Zelensky said, referring to Russia. He said the $60-per-barrel level would still allow Russia to bring in $100 billion in revenues per year.
“This money will go not only to the war and not only to further sponsorship by Russia of other terrorist regimes and organizations. This money will be used for further destabilization of those countries that are now trying to avoid serious decisions,” Zelensky said.
Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the United States and the 27-nation European Union agreed Friday to cap what they would pay for Russian oil at $60 per barrel. The limit is set to take effect Monday, along with an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea.
Russian authorities have rejected the price cap and threatened Saturday to stop supplying the nations that endorsed it.
In yet another show of Western support for Ukraine’s efforts to battle back Russian forces and cope with fallout from the war, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland on Saturday visited the operations of a Ukrainian aid group that provides support for internally displaced people in Ukraine, among her other visits with top Ukrainian officials.
Nuland assembled dolls out of yarn in the blue-and-yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag with youngsters from regions including northeastern Kharkiv, southern Kherson, and eastern Donetsk.
“This is psychological support for them at an absolutely crucial time,” Nuland said.
“As President Putin knows best, this war could stop today, if he chose to stop it and withdrew his forces — and then negotiations can begin,” she added.


Indonesia’s Semeru volcano erupts, people warned to stay away

Updated 04 December 2022

Indonesia’s Semeru volcano erupts, people warned to stay away

  • Semeru volcano on Java island spews a column of ash 1.5km into the air
  • Indonesia has the largest population globally living in close range to a volcano
JAKARTA: Indonesia’s Semeru volcano on Java island erupted early on Sunday, spewing a column of ash 1.5km into the air, prompting authorities to warn residents to stay away from the eruption area.
Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency, BNPB, warned residents not to conduct any activities within 5km of the eruption center and to stay 500 meters from riversides due to risks of lava flow.
Japan’s Meteorology Agency said was monitoring for the possibility of a tsunami there after the eruption, public broadcaster NHK reported.
The volcano began erupting at 2:46 a.m. (1946 GMT on Saturday), BNPB said in a statement. Videos posted on social media showed grey ash clouds in nearby areas.
BNPB did not immediately respond to Japan’s warning of tsunami risk.
Indonesian authorities have distributed masks to local residents, BNPB said in a statement, adding that volcanic activity remained at level III, below the highest level of IV.
With 142 volcanoes, Indonesia has the largest population globally living in close range to a volcano, including 8.6 million within 10km.

Concern as English local authority admits 39 Albanian child migrants missing

Updated 04 December 2022

Concern as English local authority admits 39 Albanian child migrants missing

  • FOI request shows 20 percent of 2022 intake ‘disappeared’ while in Kent County Council care

LONDON: Up to 20 percent of Albanian child migrants relocated to an English council in 2022 have been classified as disappeared after going missing, the BBC reported.

Kent County Council admitted 197 unaccompanied Albanian child migrants up to Oct. 31, but figures show that 39 have gone missing.

Officials said that the council is working closely with the UK Home Office to protect and safeguard vulnerable migrant children.

It comes as figures revealed that almost 12,000 Albanians crossed into the UK this year.

The number is an almost 4,000 percent increase on last year’s figure.

Ecpat UK, a campaign group that aims to protect vulnerable children, described the figures obtained by the BBC through a Freedom of Information request as “concerning.”

Head of policy, advocacy and research Laura Duran said that the 20 percent figure represented a “really high” number of missing children.

“We’re really concerned they are at risk of exploitation or have effectively been trafficked,” she said.

“They could be facing labor exploitation in different industries such as construction or car washes. They could be criminally exploited in drug distribution or in cannabis farms, or they could be sexually exploited.”

In a statement, Kent County Council said: “While all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are vulnerable to exploitation, research and experience evidences that some nationalities are particularly vulnerable and can go missing from local authority care very quickly.

“Kent County Council has used both established safeguarding protocols, including the National Referral Mechanism, and initiated multi-agency strategies to minimize the risks for these children as much as possible.

“The council continues to take a proactive role in safeguarding all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in its care.”


Ukraine detains 8 over Banksy mural theft

Updated 03 December 2022

Ukraine detains 8 over Banksy mural theft

  • The stencil image of a person in a nightgown and gas mask holding a fire extinguisher next to the charred remains of a window in the town of Gostomel went missing on Friday
  • The image is in good condition and in the hands of the authorities
KYIV: Ukraine has detained eight people over the theft from a wall in the Kyiv suburbs of a mural painted by elusive British street artist Banksy, the authorities said.
The stencil image of a person in a nightgown and gas mask holding a fire extinguisher next to the charred remains of a window in the town of Gostomel went missing on Friday, they said.
“A group of people tried to steal a Banksy mural. They cut out the work from the wall of a house destroyed by the Russians,” Kyiv governor Oleksiy Kuleba said in a post on Telegram late Friday.
He attached the image of a gaping hole in the wall where the image once stood.
“Several people were detained on the spot,” he said. “The image is in good condition and in the hands of the authorities.”
Other works in the area thought also to be the work of Banksy are under police protection, he said.
Kyiv police chief Andriy Nebitov said “eight people had been identified” as possibly involved, and a preliminary inquiry had been opened into the matter.
“All were aged between 27 and 60 years old. They are residents of Kyiv and Cherkasy” some 200 km (120 miles) southeast of the capital, he said.
Last month, Banksy posted an image of the stencil of a gymnast performing a handstand on the wall of a wrecked building in Borodyanka, another suburb of the capital.
He then posted a video of several more of his artworks, including the person in a gas mask holding the fire extinguisher.
Others included the portraits of a bearded man scrubbing up in a bathtub, and a young boy in a karate outfit slamming his adult opponent to the ground.
Together with towns such as Bucha and Irpin, Borodyanka and Gostomel were severely hit by Russian bombardment after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Estonia to buy HIMARS rocket launchers from US

Updated 03 December 2022

Estonia to buy HIMARS rocket launchers from US

  • Estonia, which neighbors Russia, has increased defense spending since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine
  • The HIMARS systems delivered to Ukraine are widely seen as one of the most effective tools in its arsenal

Tallinn, Estonia: Estonia has agreed to buy six HIMARS rocket systems from the United States worth over $200 million, the state defense investment agency said on Saturday.
It is the largest arms purchase in the country’s history.
Estonia, which neighbors Russia, has increased defense spending since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, as has its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania.
The HIMARS systems delivered to Ukraine are widely seen as one of the most effective tools in its arsenal, as the pro-Western country fights back against Russian troops.
Magnus-Valdemar Saar, director general of the Estonian Center for Defense Investments (ECDI), signed a contract on Friday with the United States’ Defense Security Cooperation Agency to boost the country’s indirect fire capability, the ECDI said in a statement.
Estonia will also “procure ammunition, communications solutions, as well as training, logistics, and life-cycle solutions,” said armament category manager Ramil Lipp.
The ECDI did not provide details on how many rockets were ordered but said the purchase included those which can strike targets at a distance of 300 kilometers (186 miles), and rockets of shorter range.
The first deliveries will arrive in 2024.
Lithuania last month said it would buy eight HIMARS rocket systems from the United States for $495 million.