Lack of Sea Ice Forces Polar Bears to Find New Homes
Many animals, places and situations have been talked about when it comes to global warming; however, it seems things always come back around to the Polar Bear. This article is no different.
The last time they made headlines, it was about cannibalism amongst their kind. Now, it seems they are being forced to shift their habitat from ice hunting grounds to land and open water. This territorial change could have a serious impact on both the polar bears and the people who may encounter them more often because of it.
A study conducted from 1979 to 2005 followed the Polar Bears of the Beaufort Sea region. Observations were made of the bears while aerial surveys were conducted to collect information on the migratory routes of bowhead whales.
Data from the 27-year study showed that the bears progressively changed their habitats as the ice conditions changed. Twelve percent of the bear sightings that occurred between 1979 and 1987 were either on land or in open water, not on ice. Between 1997 and 2005, that number increased from 12 to 90 percent. The number of bears sighted also increased from 138 between 1979 and 1987 to 468 between 1997 and 2005.
It should be noted that the increase in numbers does not mean an increase in total polar bear population nor in near-shore populations. Karyn Rode of the US Fish and Wildlife Service explains that “our results do suggest that bears that use the near-shore area are more likely to occur on land in recent years because their preferred habitat, sea ice, is unavailable”.
Sea ice is melting at a rapid rate. According to the 27-year study—published in the journal Arctic—there was less ice in the Beaufort Sea area in 2005 than in 1979. The summer melt period has increased by nearly 2 weeks per decade. This means that the freezing of the ice happens later than usual every year and the melting period lasts longer.
If people are likely to encounter the polar bears more often due to their necessary habitat shift, they will need to be advised and educated on how to handle dealing with the bears. Further studies are needed to find out how far inland the bears will go in order to survive and also to figure out how to salvage their native habitat and hunting grounds, the Arctic sea ice.
By Heidi Marshall