Is There Hope for Polar Bears?
MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– Many talks at the SCAR conference focused on how climate change might affect polar organisms, especially in relation to changes in available habitat. On the second day of the conference, the two talks in particular that caught my attention focused on Polar Bears and Antarctic fish respectively. Both depend on habitat for their survival and will face challenges in a changing environment. Will these polar animals be able to adapt to these changes? Read on to find out.
Is there hope for Polar Bears? Just ask the experts.
Polar bears have become the icon of climate change, stirring people’s emotions and bringing awareness to the issue in an unprecedented manner. And yet, both in the scientific research community and the media there is disagreement and discrepancies over what the real impacts of climate change on polar bears are. As of yet, there are no studies that span the entire Arctic region and all polar bear populations. Also, there are no models that fully look at the relationship between polar bear dynamics and climate.
S.J. O’Neill from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, UK, and others proposed a unique solution to finding out how polar bears are doing Arctic wide. They gathered polar bear experts worldwide and gave them an anonymous survey that asked detailed questions regarding polar bear populations and modeled sea-ice data. Their goal was to tease out where the discrepancies lay between experts and what experts really thought the future held for these amazing animals.
As it turns out, the discrepancies are few and the dramatic pictures of polar bears in an ice-free sea reveal some truth. Ninety percent of experts agree there will be a substantial decline in polar bear habitat and their populations across the entire Arctic. Sadly, even if significant conservation measure were put in place, experts agreed there is little prospect of preventing significant population declines. The populations in the Barents Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Hudson Bay were considered the highest risk.
The primary danger posed by global warming is malnutrition and starvation due to sea-ice habitat loss. Polar bears travel far from shore hunting for seals and other marine mammals. They spend much of their life on the sea-ice using it as both a platform for resting and their hunting grounds. The reduction in sea-ice forces bears to swim farther and farther distances, depleting their energy and occasionally leading to drowning. Also, due to rising temperatures, sea-ice now melts earlier in the year, driving the bears back to shore before they have had sufficient to build fat stores. The result is polar bear populations that are undernourished, have low reproductive rates, and lower survival rates. Let’s hope those polar bear experts get together and find some solutions, and fast.