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Keywords:

  • Arctic;
  • climate warming;
  • habitat loss;
  • polar bear;
  • sea ice

Abstract

Climate warming is causing unidirectional changes to annual patterns of sea ice distribution, structure, and freeze-up. We summarize evidence that documents how loss of sea ice, the primary habitat of polar bears (Ursus maritimus), negatively affects their long-term survival. To maintain viable subpopulations, polar bears depend on sea ice as a platform from which to hunt seals for long enough each year to accumulate sufficient energy (fat) to survive periods when seals are unavailable. Less time to access to prey, because of progressively earlier breakup in spring, when newly weaned ringed seal (Pusa hispida) young are available, results in longer periods of fasting, lower body condition, decreased access to denning areas, fewer and smaller cubs, lower survival of cubs as well as bears of other age classes and, finally, subpopulation decline toward eventual extirpation. The chronology of climate-driven changes will vary between subpopulations, with quantifiable negative effects being documented first in the more southerly subpopulations, such as those in Hudson Bay or the southern Beaufort Sea. As the bears' body condition declines, more seek alternate food resources so the frequency of conflicts between bears and humans increases. In the most northerly areas, thick multiyear ice, through which little light penetrates to stimulate biological growth on the underside, will be replaced by annual ice, which facilitates greater productivity and may create habitat more favorable to polar bears over continental shelf areas in the short term. If the climate continues to warm and eliminate sea ice as predicted, polar bears will largely disappear from the southern portions of their range by mid-century. They may persist in the northern Canadian Arctic Islands and northern Greenland for the foreseeable future, but their long-term viability, with a much reduced global population size in a remnant of their former range, is uncertain.