Receding ice pushes polar bears into sea

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It may be the latest evidence of global warming: Polar bears are drowning. Scientists for the first time have documented multiple deaths of polar bears off Alaska, where they likely drowned after swimming long distances in the ocean amid the melting of the Arctic ice shelf.

The bears spend most of their time hunting and raising their young on ice floes.

In a quarter-century of aerial surveys of the Alaska coastline before 2004, researchers from the U.S. Minerals Management Service said they typically spotted a lone polar bear swimming in the ocean far from ice about once every two years. Polar-bear drownings were so rare that they have never been documented in the surveys.

But in September 2004, when the polar ice cap had retreated a record 160 miles north of the northern coast of Alaska, researchers counted 10 polar bears swimming as far as 60 miles offshore. Polar bears can swim long distances but have evolved to mainly swim between sheets of ice, scientists say.

The researchers returned to the vicinity a few days after a fierce storm and found four dead bears floating in the water. “Extrapolation of survey data suggests that on the order of 40 bears may have been swimming and that many of those probably drowned as a result of rough seas caused by high winds,” the researchers say in a report set to be released Wednesday.

While the government researchers won’t speculate on why a climate change is taking place in the Arctic, environmentalists unconnected to the survey say U.S. policies emphasizing oil and gas development are exacerbating global warming, which is accelerating the melting of the ice. “For anyone who has wondered how global warming and reduced sea ice will affect polar bears, the answer is simple — they die,” said Rick Steiner, a marine-biology professor at the University of Alaska.

Source: Anchorage Daily News