On a “highway to hell” with polar bears, elephants, and all life?

By November 9, 2022Editorial

Caption: Kilimanjaro’s receding glaciers—a climate signal that does not bode well for Amboseli and its elephants. © Shutterstock

We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.

António Guterres, UN Secretary General

“We can sign a climate solidarity pact, or a collective suicide pact,” he added in his opening address at CoP27 in Egypt while acknowledging the world had the tools it needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in clean energy and low-carbon technology. “A window of opportunity remains open, but only a narrow shaft of light remains,” he said. “The global climate fight will be won or lost in this crucial decade ….”

We’ve heard it all before, but still, the world’s leaders seem unable, collectively and individually, to make the colossal changes needed to avoid the worst that a rapidly changing climate regime can throw at us. No longer do we need the words of scientists to convince us, we can see the climate changing with our own eyes, not only the threats to humans but to animals and the ecosystems we all ultimately depend upon.

In the far northern reaches of our planet, deep within the Arctic Circle, lies the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, home to millions of sea birds and, of course, the polar bears that are undoubtedly the greatest tourist drawcard to the nine main islands. About 300 live permanently in Svalbard, but this is only a tenth of the estimated 3,000 living within the 54,000 square miles of the Barents Sea stretching from the archipelago to the far northern reaches of mainland Norway and Russia and the long arc of the Russian-owned islands of North and South of Novaya Zemlya.

Sadly the future of these polar bears seems especially grim as, to use Guterres’s metaphor, nowhere on Earth is our foot harder on the accelerator than Svalbard and the Barents Sea, now recognized as the fastest warming place in the world. 

Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital and the planet’s northernmost permanent settlement, is estimated to be heating at six times the global average. The Arctic Ocean is, quite literally, running out of ice. In 2016, ocean physicist Peter Wadhamsa sea ice specialist with 46 years of research on sea ice, wrote: “The top of the world is turning from white to blue in summer as the ice that has long covered the north polar seas melts away. This monumental change is triggering a cascade of effects that will amplify global warming and could destabilize the global climate system”. 

In this context, it is hard to see how polar bears, adept climate adaptors as they might be, will make it, so dependent are they on sea ice for their food and procreation.

Given that our use of fossil fuels is at the core of this calamity, it seems the blackest of all ironies that Svalbard’s capital, Longyearbyen, is named after American John Munro Longyear, who started coal mining there in 1906. Not only does the extraction persist, but in the face of global anxieties about rising energy costs, Norway has decided that it is profitable to extend the mine’s life until 2025, two years beyond the previously set time for its closure. 

The link between polar bears and ice is obvious, but who would have thought ice and elephants could be linked? In the broad context of climate change, of course, the demise of polar ice affects all life. But there is one group of elephants whose existence directly depends on ice. These are the elephants of Amboseli in Kenya.

Amboseli lies at the foot of Kilimanjaro’s great volcanic dome, perennially capped with ice and snow. Well, that was the case. Since 1912 the mountain’s ice has shrunk by some 85 percent. And the rate seems to be accelerating: between 2000 and 2007, the glaciers shrunk by another 25 percent.

“The glaciers have been in retreat for more than a century,” says glaciologist Doug Hardy, “with a drying climate in East Africa one main culprit.” He maintains that there is too little evidence to blame the ice loss on increasing atmospheric temperatures. However, “It’s entirely reasonable that, yes, the glaciers are going away on Kilimanjaro in response to global warming,” says Hardy. “But the link is via Indian Ocean-driven circulation patterns rather than via a warmer atmosphere.” 

 Dr. Patrick Omondi, the chief executive officer of Wildlife Research and Training Institute in Kenya, says Kilimanjaro’s melting ice is both positive and negative: “It is positive because Amboseli was not originally a wetland area. The melting glaciers now have filtered through and created swamps.” The Tanzanian side, however, faces the disastrous effects of drought as the glacial melt is not filtering down on that side of the mountain.

For the famous elephants of Amboseli, the wetland has often proved a godsend in dry times, but ultimately it will disappear. It takes decades for glacial meltwater to filter down through the mountain to reach the swamps. So, once the ice has completely disappeared (by 2050, according to Unesco), it seems inevitable that the wetland, the present haven for Amboseli’s elephants, will disappear too.

In the meantime, the life-giving waters from the mountain have not been not enough to save Amboseli’s wildlife from the prolonged and crippling drought conditions that currently mantle much of East Africa in a cloak of death. It has been described as the worst drought in recent history and a humanitarian crisis for many communities.

Wildlife, too, has been hard hit. A report just released documents the severity of the situation. It confirmed drought-related mortalities for many animals, including 205 elephants, 512 Wildebeest, 382 Common Zebra, 49 Grevy’s zebra, and 51 buffalo. The worst hit places have been the Amboseli and Laikipia-Samburu ecosystems, where more than 70 elephant deaths have occurred. A feeding program is underway in Laikipia-Samburu for Grevy’s zebras which are restricted to those landscapes population. Only one young rhino has died so far, but the worsening drought could see more rhinos succumb.

And it’s not only the larger mammals that are distressed by global warming; birds, too, are affected. Recently, scientists from South Africa’s University of Pretoria studied how much heat 53 bird species from hot arid, cool mountainous, or warm, humid coastal regions of southern Africa could stand. 

They found that birds from different climates handle extreme heat differently. This contradicted previous research about the vulnerability of birds to climate change that assumed the ability to cope with extreme air temperatures was similar between species. 

Their research also confirmed the long-held suspicion that songbirds, which make up more than half of all bird species on Earth, are particularly vulnerable to heatwaves.

“These risks were dramatically illustrated in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, on 8 November 2020, when air temperatures in the Pongola area soared to 45°C by mid-afternoon. This caused huge numbers of birds to succumb. Approximately 90% of the bird carcasses found by field rangers in the nearby Phongolo Nature Reserve in the aftermath of the heat were those of songbirds.”

In a limited way, such mortality events can be mitigated by obvious interventions such as providing shady vegetation, where birds can escape the worst of the heat, and ensuring that standing water sources are available.

“Ultimately,” the researchers conclude, “the only way to prevent large-scale losses of avian biodiversity – on account of rapid global warming – is the rapid decarbonization of economies and a global transition to renewable energy sources.”

Of course, that is what we need to do for the survival of all life as we know it, whether humans, birds, elephants, or polar bears.

And that brings us back to the deliberations of CoP27 in Egypt and Antonio Guterres’s challenge: “We can sign a climate solidarity pact, or a collective suicide pact,”