Climate change is set to drive a dramatic reduction in polar bear habitats in coming decades, conservationists warned today as they called for action to help the species.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), recent trends for the extent and thickness of the marine sea ice that polar bears rely on suggests it is set to dramatically shrink over the next 50 to 100 years.
The Arctic could see annual sea ice decline by between 10% and 50% by 2100, hitting polar bear populations, the IUCN said.
Research from the Norwegian Polar Institute suggests the ice is thinning to such an extent that it could almost completely melt in a summer with favourable conditions and might leave the Arctic ice-free in summer within a decade.
The Norwegian Polar Institute's Dag Vongraven, who is chairman of the IUCN's polar bear specialist group, warned: "Now is the time to act in order to save the waning polar bear population.
"If we fail to make a stand to save this species we risk having the population become severely decimated, and quite certainly they will have disappeared from many areas where they're found today."
Polar bears, whose predicament has become a symbol of climate change, reside largely on sea ice throughout Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and Alaska.
Some have continuous access to ice and are able to hunt all year, while others in areas where the ice melts completely in the summer then spend several months on land fasting until the sea freezes again.
The species is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List for threatened species, with populations thought to be decreasing. Numbers could fall by as much as 30% by 2050.
Simon Stuart, chairman of IUCN's species survival commission, said: "Climate change will be one of the major drivers of species extinctions in the 21st century.
"In order to slow the pace the adverse effects of climate change are having on species around the world, we must work to reduce use of energy from fossil fuels and ensure that our leaders make and adhere to strong commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions now."
Other factors which also affect the species include toxic contaminants, shipping, oil and gas exploration and polar bear watching by tourists.