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Arctic species under threat, report warns

By Matthew Knight for CNN
  • New report highlights extinction threat to Arctic wildlife
  • Whales, walruses, Arctic foxes, even plankton are all at risk of dying out
  • Rapid melting of Arctic ice sheet in recent years means habitats are disrupted or destroyed
  • Lead author says reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a must to prevent further losses

London, England (CNN) -- Polar bears clinging to melting ice sheets have become one of the most frequently used images to portray the perils of climate change.

But a new report by the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and UK-based Care for the Wild International (CWI) is bringing attention to the predicament of other equally endangered Arctic species.

Seventeen Arctic animals are highlighted in "Extinction: It's Not Just for Polar Bears."

Shaye Wolf, lead author and climate science director of the CBD told CNN: "The plight of the polar bear due to global warming is very well known and familiar. But many other Arctic species are suffering a similar fate -- from plankton all the way to the great whales."

The impacts of climate change are "unfolding far more rapidly in the Arctic than any other area on the planet" threatening its ecosystem, the report said.

A 2009 study by Donald K. Perovich and Jacqueline A Richter-Menge -- "Loss of Sea Ice in the Arctic" -- reported that the sea ice extent in 2007 was one million square miles below the average figure recorded between 1979 and 2000.

This, and other data suggests, say scientists, that summer sea ice could completely disappear in the Arctic by 2030.

The ice retreat is already spelling trouble for marine mammals like the Pacific walrus and the harp seal.

Pacific walruses, like many of the mammals in the report, are sea ice dependent says Wolf, with many having already suffering population declines.

"As we speak, there are 10 to 20,000 walruses holed up on Alaskan Arctic coastline. And that is attributable to sea ice loss," Wolf says.

"Walruses need sea ice for resting because they can't swim continuously. When they lose that sea ice, especially moms and calves, they are forced to come to shore -- where calves are very vulnerable to be trampled in stampedes."

Last year, Wolf says the stampede claimed 131 young walruses.

The number was even higher off the Russian coast in 2007 where several thousand calves died when around 40,000 walruses were pushed ashore.

Ocean acidification -- caused by increased uptake of carbon dioxide -- is happening more quickly in the Arctic than in warmer waters, says Wolf.

Shell-building marine creatures like the sea butterfly (Clione limacina) are particularly vulnerable to acidification.

Their loss would be potentially devastating for other species.

On land, the Arctic fox -- found on the southern edges of the Arctic tundra -- is facing "myriad threats from climate change," including shrinking sea ice and tundra, declines in lemming prey and increased competition from the larger, more dominant red fox -- which is edging north as temperatures rise.

All the animals in the report are at risk of extinction due to climate change says Wolf.

"What is going on in the Arctic isn't something that we can consider completely remote from ourselves. Actually, it's a fantastic barometer of what is going to happen in the rest of the world," CWI's Rebecca Taylor told CNN.

"The Arctic is ground zero for climate change and we're already pushing many species towards extinction. The key to preventing their loss is reducing our greenhouse gas emissions -- specifically carbon dioxide -- to a level of 350ppm or below. That is a level many leading scientists have called for to restore Arctic sea ice," Wolf said.