A polar bear cub in the Canadian Arctic
A polar bear cub in the Canadian Arctic - 
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Scott Jagow: We continue now with our series "Plan B," on adapting to global warming. Today, the focus is on the Arctic. Levels of sea ice are at their lowest since measurements started in 1979. NASA predicts the Arctic Sea could be ice-free as early as the summer of 2013. That's obviously bad news for the animals that live there.

From our Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio, Janet Babin reports.

Janet Babin: We've all seen the movies and commercials with those adorable polar bear cubs. They swim like toddlers in an icy Arctic wonderland.

Yeah, well, in the real world, polar bear cubs are starving. Last fall, University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher observed 8-month-old cubs in Hudson Bay, the Canadian Arctic.

Andrew Derocher: They're clearly in very poor shape. The mother's probably stopped nursing them. They were pretty listless and not showing a lot of energy, which is really atypical for cubs, which are normally pretty playful.

One of the reasons for this: the Arctic sea ice is melting.

Derocher says Canada's northern communities depend on the polar bear for tourism and hunting. Melting ice means bears have to swim farther to hunt or forage inland. He wracked his brain for a solution, until colleague and engineer Peter Flynn called.

Peter Flynn: What you do is go out onto the ice and pump a lot of water up on top of the ice.

Flynn would use 50-foot barges with windmills on them to pump seawater onto the existing ice. Thicker ice takes longer to melt. That would give the bears more time to hunt in the critical early spring.

Flynn: Let's suppose for Hudson Bay we were going to start with 10 barges. So you'd be talking in something in the order of $25 million. Is it worth it?

Many biologists would say no. But whatever it takes is worth it to Wilfred Chivell, a tour operator in South Africa. He designed and installed hundreds of fiberglass nests for penguins dying from habitat loss on South Africa's Dyer Island.

Wilfred Chivell: I must admit there was quite a few smirks and a few laughs when I started to come up with the idea. But the skeptical guys see it's working and there's now talk of going to other islands and other localities.

So far, Chivell's project has cost $50,000.

But what about the fish the penguins eat? Or the seals hunted by polar bears? Many scientists say tinkering with one species can endanger another.

But to Duke University professor Rob Jackson, if a species is close to extinction, we've already tinkered.

Rob Jackson: And for me, allowing species to disappear is much more disruptive than intervening -- ideally in small ways -- to save those species.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

Jagow: Our series was produced in conjunction with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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