Even the High Arctic won’t remain a haven for polar bears if the Earth continues to warm at the current pace, says an alarming new study.
Published in PLOS One, an online science journal on Wednesday, the study warns that all regions of Canada’s Arctic islands could potentially be ice-free for two to five months every year by the end of the century, triggering starvation and reproductive failure for polar bears.
Conditions outside the islands could be worse for the bears.
“It doesn’t look too good,” said Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta in Edmonton and one of the authors of the study.
Using a regionally focussed climate model, the researchers projected that sea ice in the Canadian Arctic islands will decline remarkably, leaving long periods each year when there isn’t any ice. That would force pregnant females on to land earlier than usual and could interfere with successful births, the study said. The rest of the sea ice may not persist long enough to allow bears enough time to hunt and store energy.
The model used by the researchers is one of the worst-case scenarios for climate change, said Derocher.
“I would argue that right now, we are pretty much on the worst case scenario trajectory to climate change. It projects is a mean global temperature change of about 3.5 degrees Celsius in 2071 to 2100.”
Some populations could change quite quickly if ice conditions deteriorate, he warned.
There isn’t good information about the exact number of polar bears in this area because of how remote it is, but Derocher said Nunavut and Greenland are conducting a survey to gauge the number.
For most part, the bear populations are doing well, he said. “Some are quite healthy and robust. But in some areas, there are already some concerns.”
Stephen Hamilton, also of the University of Alberta and an author of the paper, said the results were more disappointing than shocking.
“There was hope based on previous research that the Canadian Arctic Archipelago would somewhat weather the storm…(but) our study suggests that even if the Archipelago holds on to habitat the longest, if nothing is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, we could be looking at critical conditions for polar bears by the end of this century.”
Is there a way to save polar bears?
“The best indications are that mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions will slow down the rate of sea ice loss, which will mean that polar bears will be able to maintain their habitat likely beyond the scope of our model.”
Polar bears, one of the world’s most endangered species, are having a very bad November.
Just last week, a study found a 25 to 50 per cent decline in polar bears between 2001 and 2010 in the Southern Beaufort Sea region of the U.S. and Canadian Arctic.
Earlier in November, there were reports of an attack by a polar bear that left two people injured in Churchill, Man.
(The small town of about 900 on Hudson Bay is known as the polar bear capital of the world.)
It prompted new warnings from scientists of the increasing risk of encounters as starving bears come off the ice and on to land looking for food in a warming Arctic.