Polar Bears: Soon To Be Just A Distant Memory?

4 mins

In the aftermath of the horrific starving polar bear video that went viral last year, experts are warning the situation for these artic bears is deteriorating. Unless serious action is taken, 66 per cent of polar bears will have disappeared in the next 30 years. Jeff Berardelli reports

Unbearable. That’s honestly how I felt the first, second, third and 10th time I watched this video.

It was posted by National Geographic in December of 2017. They describe it as ‘heart-wrenching.’ For me that doesn’t go far enough.

Try heart breaking. And it’s likely our fault. Yes, you and me and the rest of us. Our growing need for more, means that polar bears will have less.

Now a new study by Anthony Pagano et al. says polar bears need a lot more energy than scientists originally thought. The problem is there’s now less food within their reach.

Polar Bears live in the Arctic. It is estimated the total population is between 22,000-31,000. They spend most of their time on sea ice hunting their primary food source, fat rich seals. But that icy environment is now under siege by a rapidly changing climate. The Arctic is warming at double the rate of the rest of the world and sea ice is decreasing at the breakneck pace of 14 per cent per decade.

‘Arctic winter temperatures have increased more than 3C (5.4 F) since the 1980s, much faster than anywhere else on Earth’ according to Zeke Hausfather, a climate data expert and environmental economist from Berkeley Earth.

And the impacts have been profound. Zack Labe, an Arctic sea ice expert from University of California, Irvine says ‘Each of the last 3 winters have witnessed the lowest annual maximum (sea ice) extent on record, and it is likely this winter will also be close to a record low.’

As I write, the forecast for the next two weeks is heat, heat and more heat across the Arctic Ocean. At times temperatures will be 30 C (54 F) or more above normal. This is very unusual.

These above normal temperatures yield thinner sea ice, and less sea ice makes for higher temperatures. Zack Labe says it is a positive feedback loop.

‘Recent research suggests these winter warming events are increasing in frequency and duration. Further, the absence of sea ice area makes it easier for this warmer air to move poleward. Previously, extensive sea ice would modify these air masses as they moved into the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the Arctic Ocean.’

The results are predictable and already apparent. Less sea ice means less opportunities for polar bears to capture seals. The bears must invest more energy foraging further, swimming longer and wandering onto land for less of a return.

The results are predictable and already apparent. Less sea ice means less opportunities for polar bears to capture seals. The bears must invest more energy foraging further, swimming longer and wandering onto land for less of a return.

And the results of this study add insult to injury.

Scientists monitored the behavior and metabolic rates of nine free ranging polar bears for two years in the Beaufort Sea just north of Alaska & Canada. They fitted the bears with GPS technology, cameras, and took blood samples. Of specific interest were the field metabolic rates (FMR); a measurement of the amount of energy used by a free-living animal in the wild. The scientists found that rates were 1.6 times higher than originally thought. Meaning the bears are using more energy. This is partly due to the fact that resting polar bears do not reduce their metabolic rate as much as was assumed.

Putting it all together, polar bears not only require more food, but now that food is harder to come by.

As a consequence, researchers found that four of the nine polar bears lost greater than 10% of their body mass.

And the future is not looking good. Computer models estimate that Arctic temperatures will increase by another 2 degrees C (3.6 F) by 2050 and summers in the Arctic may be nearly ice-free by mid-century.

There’s not much we can do to stop this, at least in the near term. With the amount of greenhouse gases already trapped in the atmosphere and the inevitable human caused emissions to come over the next few decades, significant warming in the Arctic is all but guaranteed.

I corresponded with the lead author of the polar bear report, Anthony Pagano, to ask him what this means for the future of polar bears. Here’s what he said, ‘Steven Amstrup (Amstrup et al. 2008) and Todd Atwood (Atwood et al. 2016) modeled potential threats to polar bears to the end of the century based on general circulation forecasts of Arctic sea ice. Their work indicated that forecasted declines in Arctic sea ice would lead to declines in polar bear populations across much of their range. Amstrup et al. (2008) forecasted that two-thirds of the world’s polar bear populations could be lost as soon as mid-century.’

Just in case you missed it. Let’s try that again and this time in bold. Two-thirds (66%) of Polar Bears may be gone in just 30 years. This is the classic example of the ‘canary in the coal mine’. And it won’t end with polar bears. Countless other species may very well follow.

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