Ecologist and bear biologist Chris Morgan shares his thoughts on a recent story discussing the increase in polar bears looking to their own kind as a food source:
I’ve been lucky enough to guide several polar bear viewing expeditions to Svalbard in the European high arctic. It is a wildly isolated and beautiful place. The amazing polar bear shots that Jenny Ross captured with her camera jolt us into thinking about the many hidden implications of climate change. So often we’re drawn to the big picture data, or the sweeping effects that our planet is undergoing – and rightly so. But I also like to dwell on the stories that bring climate change to life, through the eyes of individual animals and people. Each and every polar bear is facing increased every-day stress as a result of our warming planet. One year I saw a female and cubs on a chunk of ice the size of perhaps two football fields. It was the last ice of the season in a west coast inlet of Svalbard, and she was going to float it until it was gone.
Bottom line: polar bears need ice. And there is one reason for that – their prey need ice. Polar bears feed almost exclusively on seals, and those seals are what scientists call pagophilic (”ice-loving”). As the world’s frozen seas shrink, so do opportunities for polar bears to hunt these seals and make a living from a habitat that gets smaller every year. Some of them are forced to take extreme measures – in this case cannibalism. In 2006 I found the remains of a bear in Svalbard that could well have been the result of similar cannibalism (see picture) by desperate bears.
Polar bears elsewhere face similar pressures. Their future was never far from my mind when we filmed polar bears for Bears of the Last Frontier in northern Alaska. The Southern Beaufort Sea population is looking at a questionable future – sea ice will decline there by 6% per decade over the next 45 years. We stand to lose two thirds of the world’s polar bears by the year 2050 due to the effects of climate change. That’s 16,000 bears in 40 years, or an average of more than one bear every day. Although difficult when it comes to the future of the polar bear, I like to dwell on the side of optimism. This century’s polar bears will persist for longest in the high arctic archipelago of Canada and northern Greenland – a high latitude refuge for these super-specialists. They will exist in much smaller numbers than they do today, but my hope is that they will provide a constant reminder – as well as a beacon of hope – to do right by our environment, and ultimately to do right by ourselves.
Pictured: Chris Morgan with a polar bear skull in Svalbard. (Credit: Ellie Van Os)
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