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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February, 2005, 13:53 GMT
Bear study sparks climate fears
Polar bear (Picture by Tiago Marques)
Experts at St Andrews fear polar bears are in jeopardy
A pioneering study by Scottish experts has highlighted the dangers posed to polar bears from global warming.

Scientists at St Andrews University have carried out what they believe to be the largest ever polar bear count in Arctic Europe.

They believe 3,000 are living in the Barents Sea region, in contrast to earlier estimates of up to 5,000.

A spokesman for the researchers said the risk from global warming puts bears in a "vulnerable position".

The ground-breaking survey was carried out over five weeks and involved two helicopters and bears with satellite tags.

Experts from St Andrews studied the region, which provides massive nature reserves for polar bears, with scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) and the University of Oslo.

Polar bears threatened

Norway has an obligation to monitor its polar bear population through the International Polar Bear Agreement of 1973.

The Norwegian Ministry of the Environment funded the research project.

Fears were voiced that global warming threatened the ice-sheet used as hunting grounds by the animals.

Tiago Marques
The final goal should be that in 100 years or so people can still admire these animals in the wild
Tiago Marques
St Andrews University

A spokeswoman for the university research team said: "The possibility of the effects of global warming melting ice puts bears, especially pregnant females, in a vulnerable position.

"They feed mainly on seals, though last year saw a spate of bears breaking into cabins in search of food."

The region is home to 12% of the world's polar bears.

The spokeswoman added: "Though the large number means safety in the short term, the NPI says that climate change and organic pollutants may affect the population in the long run."

The study was led by Tiago Marques of the university's Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling.

Climate change warning

He said: "It was a privilege to be part of work of which the final goal should be to contribute to the possibility that in 100 years or so people can still admire these animals in the wild."

But he warned: "With current environmental policies, that seems a difficult task at present."

Norway's Environment Minister Knut Arild Hareide said: "This count gives us a good basis for the future management of this animal.

Polar bear (Picture by Tiago Marques)
The bears were studied in the Arctic Barents Sea region

"We know that the polar bear is threatened by organic pollutants and changes in climate.

"By conducting regular counts we will be able to monitor effects and trends in the polar bear population in a way we never could before."

Dangerous levels of climate change could be reached in just over 20 years if nothing is done to stop global warming, a WWF-UK study claimed last month.

At current rates, the Earth will be 2C above pre-industrial levels some time between 2026 and 2060, says a paper by Dr Mark New of Oxford University.

Temperatures in the Arctic could rise by three times this amount, he says.

It would lead to a loss of summer sea ice and tundra vegetation, with polar bears and other animals dying out.

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