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The appalling fate of the polar bear, symbol of the Arctic

It has been declared at risk by conservation groups. Yet rich Westerners are paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of shooting an animal whose very existence is already threatened by environmental disaster. Geoffrey Lean reports from Ilulissat, Greenland, on a fight for survival

Polar bears – the very symbol of the Arctic's looming environmental disaster – are crashing towards extinction as a result of global warming, the US government has found. The admission, the result of a massive investigation by the Bush administration, could force the President finally to take action against climate change.

The development comes at the end of the most momentous week in the human history of the Arctic, which is warming faster than anywhere else in the world. Satellite observations have revealed that its ice has shrunk to much its lowest ever level, raising fears that it had reached a "tipping point" where it would melt irreversibly, disappearing altogether in summer in less than 25 years, with incalculable global consequences,

And a separate Independent on Sunday investigation has found that polar bears are being shot in alarming numbers by rich trophy hunters from the US, Europe and Japan, even as their increasingly fragile habitat melts beneath them. Campaigners know that climate change and pollution are the biggest threats to polar bear survival, but believe that stopping sports hunting is symbolically important. Former US presidential candidate Senator John Kerry is leading the fight.

"It's time to put the polar bear on the endangered species list, and give them a fighting chance at survival," he said. "Not only must these bears contend with their home melting away, but they are also being hunted in the limited habitat they have left. It's time to take responsibility for their survival."

And Environment Secretary Hilary Benn told the IoS yesterday: "As a result of climate change we are already witnessing the destruction of polar bear habitats, and the idea that people would consider trophy hunting these great creatures is unacceptable."

American hunters exploit a loophole in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows them to get licences to import polar bear trophies from Canada. Some 953 have been granted or applied for since 1994. Senator Kerry is now co-sponsoring with Republican Senator Olympia Snowe a proposed Polar Bear Protection Act in the US Senate that would stop the skins being imported.

At the same time comes the polar bear investigation – conducted by the US Geological Survey – which concluded that the world population would be cut by two-thirds by the middle of the century as the result of the melting of the ice. This is likely to be over-optimistic because, as the survey itself admits, it is based on estimates of the rate of the ice's disappearance that fall far short of what is actually taking place. New evidence also suggests that chemical pollution, wafted up to the Arctic, is interfering with the bears' abilities to reproduce.

The study is hugely significant because it was ordered by President Bush's Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, as a response to pressure to list the species under the US Endangered Species Act. Its conclusions make the listing virtually impossible to refuse. Once the species is covered by the act, US agencies would be bound by law to take into account how their decisions could affect it – leading to action to control the growth of the pollution that causes global warming.

The Arctic crisis has become so compelling that leaders of the world's main religions gathered this weekend on the iceberg-studded sea off this small town, deep in the Arctic Circle on the west Greenland coast, to pray for the planet. Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox church – who convened the group – told them: "the danger of an avoidable catastrophe is now more acute than ever." On Friday senior representatives of the Roman Catholic and protestant churches, Sunni and Shia Islam,and the Hebrew, Hindu, Shinto and Buddhist Zen religions joined the Patriarch in silent prayer on the prow of a liner under a lowering sky in the shadow of giant icebergs.

The icebergs are calving from the rapidly melting Sermeq Kujalleq glacier – near this town of 4,400 people and 2,500 sled dogs – which is disappearing at a rate of a staggering 35 cubic kilometres, or 8.4 cubic miles, a year. Every day enough ice breaks away to provide water for everyone in London for a year. The biggest glacier in Greenland, it is retreating at a rate of 10 miles a year, five times as fast as 10 years ago, as temperatures rise three times as fast as in the rest of the world. Much the same melting is occurring all over the island. The giant Helheim glacier on the east coast, for example – which had remained stable since records began – has retreated four and a half miles. Since 1995 the island's vast icecap has lost 300 feet in height.

Robert Corell, who heads the world's main monitoring project on the region– the international Arctic Climate Impact Assessment – said the melting was becoming "catastrophic", and experts increasingly fear that it is approaching the point where the disappearance of the entire icecap becomes inevitable. That would raise sea-levels worldwide by over 20 feet, inundating coastal cities.

The Arctic's sea ice may already have reached such a tipping point. Up to five years ago the sea around this town – whose name means "iceberg" in the local language – froze every winter; now it remains open throughout the year.

Last week the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Denver, Colorado, announced that the sea ice had shrunk to 2.05 million square miles in August 2007; its previous record low was 2.14 million square miles two years ago. It means that a staggering 200,000 sq miles of ice is now open sea for the first time. This year the fabled Northwest Passage through northern Canada opened, while the North-east Passage around Siberia is blocked by just a single tongue of ice. Scientists expect that they will both shortly open simultaneously, making it possible to sail round the North Pole for the first time

The speed of the melting has taken everyone by surprise; computer models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict sea ice should not retreat so far until around 2050. Traditionally the ice reaches its annual minimum in the first week of September, so it should soon start increasing again for the winter. But another record low is expected for next summer. Dr Mark Serreze of the Snow and Ice Data Centre describes the ice as being in a "death spiral... If this is not at or near a tipping point right now, then I'd hate to see what that looks like." A couple of years ago he would not have expected the Arctic to lose all its ice until the end of the century; now he expects it by 2030. This is predicted to have massive global consequences, disrupting the monsoon and bringing prolonged drought to the American midwest, which helps to feed 100 nations.

The crisis has already hit this town, where hunters can no longer go out on the ice, threatening the Inuit's very raison d'être. In the past year alone 14 young men committed suicide in this small town. And both polar bear and Inuit are accumulating high concentrations of chemicals in their bodies from pollution brought by the winds from the far south. Polar bears are among the most contaminated animals on earth, while Inuit in Greenland have 70 times as much of one pesticide in their bodies as people in Canada. New evidence suggests that the contamination is affecting the ability of both to reproduce.

Belfast Telegraph