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Polar bears in danger as their ice starts to melt

GLOBAL warming is threatening polar bears as it melts their Arctic habitat, Norway's environment minister said yesterday.

"If the ice is disintegrating in the Arctic, it will have enormous impact on polar bears," Environment and Development Minister Erik Solheim told reporters on the eve of a meeting to discuss the animals' future.

The meeting is the first since 1981 to bring together states which are home to polar bears - Norway, Russia, Canada, the United States and Danish-administered Greenland.

"Clearly the main point in a rescue plan for the polar bear is to reduce global warming," Solheim said.

The world's polar bear population is estimated at 20,000-25,000 animals, with 2,200-4,000 belonging to the Barents Sea population of Norway and northwestern Russia.

Polar bears spend most of their lives on or near sea ice. Though they are excellent swimmers, they are no match in the water for seals, their main prey, so they must hunt on ice floes.

Solheim said it was very helpful that the US under former President George W. Bush put the polar bear on the list of endangered species.

"We should build on that to see what we can do to protect the polar bears," he said.

The states agreed in 1973 to protect polar bears and their habitat, but they have not met for 28 years.

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said pollutants and gases such as soot, ozone and methane, can be controlled more easily in the Arctic than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming.

Industrial soot, for instance, blackens the snow and makes it soak up more heat, accelerating the melt.

"Their warming effect in the Arctic is very large," Hansen said. "I think it's still possible to save sea ice in the Arctic but it requires strong, prompt actions."


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