WASHINGTON – The arctic ecosystem is the “canary in the coal mine” of global warming, said Susan Kutz, an environmental science professor from the University of Calgary at a Capitol Hill briefing on Friday.

By tracking disease rates, eating habits and population densities in arctic species such as musk oxen, polar bears and Alaskan yellow cedars, it might be possible to gain insight on what will happen globally, Kutz said.

Data show musk ox in Canada are parasite-ridden, polar bears in Alaska have turned to cannibalism, and trees in Alaska are thinning and catching fire.

“I’m not talking about the “mights’ or “coulds’ or “woulds.’ I’m talking about what has happened,” said Glenn Patrick Juday, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, of the effects of increased temperatures in the arctic.

“It’s not a close call, it’s not equivocal, it’s not hard to discern,” Juday said. “It’s kind of a smoking-gun-in-the-face sort of thing.”

Kutz and Juday were taking part in an American Meteorological Society seminar dealing with global warming.

For some areas in Alaska, a global climate shift that began in the late 1970s has meant a 3.5 degree Celsius increase in daily low temperatures, Juday said.

Bears in search of food have been forced to swim extended distances – some drown in the process, Steven Amstrup, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Society says – and turn to one another for prey. In 2004, Amstrup said he found three cases of cannibalism among polar bears near Alaska’s southern Beaufort Sea. Amstrup said there is no firm quantitative data on drowning or ravenous polar bears, but observations indicate a change in the ecosystem.

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