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Polar Bear, IJsbeer, Ursus maritimus

“No one cares about the polar bears!”

That was the response from my friend when I suggested that melting polar ice caps, sea ice and glaciers are one of the first symptoms of climate change discussed in media. She was not denying that global warming is causing climate change, just that it seems very far away.

For Californians, climate change is making itself felt in more immediate ways. Record-breaking wildfires have burned hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, fields and plains, and destroyed thousands of homes. Atmospheric rivers, mudslides, and droughts have also had their impacts. Many lives have been lost, human as well as wild and domestic animals.

Napa has not been spared. Whether or not one has been personally victimized, most Napans know someone who has … and upon reflection, it is understandable that the welfare of Ursus Maritimus – the polar bear – is pretty low on Napa’s priority scale.

“People are tired of hearing about ice caps and the demise of polar bears,” my friend said.

Why, indeed, should the rapid decline of the polar bear population be important to Napans? It’s not only the loss of this magnificent species itself, but the mechanism behind their loss that is scientifically significant. Polar ice and glacial ice are disappearing at an accelerating rate. If not curtailed, this will have major consequences for the entire world, including Napa.

Consider this: Napa is just 20 feet above sea level. As residents know, the Napa River is tidal. High tide in San Francisco Bay pushes upstream all the way to downtown Napa. High tides contributed heavily to three major floods since 1986, adding four to six feet to the rising river. Damages ran into millions of dollars and displaced hundreds of residents and businesses.

Fortunately, Napa’s multi-million dollar flood control project has successfully fended off flooding from more recent heavy rains, including this winter’s all-time record rainfall, but with rising seas, this will change. At some point, the flood control project will not be sufficient to protect our infrastructure and our homes.

NASA satellite data show that the rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade. NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment shows Greenland lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 127 billion tons of ice per year. Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world.

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According to ice and climate expert Dr. Joseph Romm, author of “Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know” (2015), if the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, sea levels could rise 20 feet.

Uh, oh. Twenty feet! Remember Napa’s altitude – 20 feet above sea level?

Do we know when that will happen? Not exactly; there are many scenarios for how this will play out. But we do know this: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of world’s foremost climate scientists, have warned us that we must undertake unprecedented steps within the next decade to avoid overshooting globally agreed-upon temperature targets, and the catastrophic climate disruption that would result. The U.S. National Climate Assessment Report issued last Thanksgiving reinforces the urgency of this message.

Napa, and all sea coast towns, are in trouble, if not now, then in the decades our children and grandchildren will inherit.

What can we do to stop it?

Human-caused global warming is primarily a result of certain gases and other climate pollutants, like black carbon (soot), being released in excess amounts into the atmosphere. These pollutants have amplified the so-called “greenhouse effect.” The greenhouse effect is a normal process that has helped our planet maintain a comfortable temperature and climate for millennia. However, climate pollutants have increased this effect, blocking the normal containment rate and trapping more heat, which, in turn, elevates the world temperature. Reversing this trend now, and focusing particularly on cleaning up short-lived pollutants will help.

As we hear daily in the weather news, regions all over the world are affected. Weather records — temperatures, storm frequency, storm intensity, snowfall records, drought records, fire storms — are being broken every year. And this is occurring because of a 1.6 degree Fahrenheit increase of global temperature.

Alas, it is likely that Ursus Maritimus is already headed toward extinction, and perhaps penguins of Antarctica as well. This is sad for the world, and devastating for the ecosystems in which polar bears and penguins have played important roles.

As for us, we haven’t yet hit the point of no return, but the clock is ticking. It will be a sad tale for Napa, and for all of us, in a few years if something doesn’t change. If we fail to effect radical change, so go polar bears and penguins – and in time, so go we.

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