- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

The oceans may be warming and air temperatures rising, but Iceland is bucking the global climate trend.

Thick pack ice, the like of which has not been seen for decades, is stretching into the western fjords as temperatures plummet and a bitter wind blows in from Greenland.

The ice has proved a headache for fishermen, who have been unable to go to sea, but it is what might arrive with the ice that has caused most concern: polar bears.

People living around the fjord of Dyrafjordur, which last week was almost filled with the ice, were keeping an eye on the sea, conscious that the bears live on the pack ice that covers much of the Arctic Ocean. When chunks break off, as appears to have happened last week, the bears become stranded, drifting wherever the ice takes them.

There have been numerous accounts of bears making land on the shores of Iceland, creating consternation in the local population. But it is the bears who tend to come off worse in encounters with the Icelanders, who take a distinctly unsentimental approach to the furry intruders.

In 1993, the last time a bear made it to Icelandic waters, it was caught by a fishing crew and killed. It is thought to have been stranded on a piece of pack ice that broke off the main pack and melted, leaving the animal swimming in the open ocean 70 miles from the main ice sheet. The last bear to make it to shore was promptly shot when it turned up near the town of Haganesvik in the north of the country in 1988.

Coast guard Cmdr. Asgrinur Asgrinsson remembers a polar bear coming ashore on the island of Grimsey, north of the mainland, when he was a child. It was shot and stuffed and now has pride of place in the museum in the town of Husavik.

About 25,000 polar bears are estimated to be in the wild, and environmentalists have warned that they are in danger of becoming extinct as their habitat shrinks.

Climate change scientists say that with temperatures rising, the pack ice may be melted completely by as early as 2040, leaving the Arctic Ocean navigable and the polar bears with nowhere to go.

Last week’s return of the pack ice to Iceland initially suggested that those predictions might have been overly pessimistic.

“I have lived here my whole life, but I have never seen so much pack ice before,”said Helgi Arnason, a farmer in Dyrafjordur. “Forty years ago, large icebergs drifted on to beaches but it was nothing compared with this.”

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