© Andrew Derocher

The Arctic is changing. Can polar bears change with it?

8 April 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Polar Bears: Facing a Changing Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

The first time I saw a polar bear, I was doing field work in the Canadian Arctic. In fact, we were visited by six bears within 24 hours as the summer sea ice broke up and bears began moving to land. I felt fortunate that three Inuit researchers were in the camp with us. They were completely confident in their understanding of the bears’ behaviour and their ability to deter them safely. Thanks to their expertise, I watched these Arctic animals in their natural habitat respectfully and without fear.

As the climate crisis accelerates, I often wonder how much my experience with polar bears in their element will become just a fond memory. The climate crisis makes it increasingly difficult to predict how these bears will fare as their habitat shrinks. That said, there is broad agreement that the loss of habitat will have a negative impact on polar bear populations across the Arctic. Indeed, in some subpopulations, impacts have already been evident for more than a decade. The accepted estimate is that under the current global climate trajectory, one third of polar bears will be lost in the next 30 years. But what will the pathway to that point look like for polar bears, and what new challenges can we expect and prepare for?

To explore that question, this issue of The Circle highlights some of the situations unfolding across the Arctic as polar bears experience the effects of climate change. In two Eastern Canadian subpopulations, as annual sea ice replaces multi-year ice, polar bears are in better shape than they were two decades ago, partly due to the greater abundance of prey. Around Svalbard—despite the loss of sea ice and the resulting disconnection of summer habitats from traditional maternal denning sites—cub production and population sizes are stable. In contrast, the general condition of western Hudson Bay polar bears suggests they are either eating fewer seals or expending more energy to live.

So on the whole, are polar bears adapting to the loss of sea ice? It appears they are trying. How successful their efforts will be in the long term remains to be seen. Meanwhile, some of their coping mechanisms are creating new challenges and exacerbating existing pressures. Spending more time on coastlines and islands among walrus haul-outs and bird colonies is bringing the bears into closer contact with communities, making it hard for people and bears to co-exist without dangerous consequences. In their search for new prey, polar bears are decimating some seabird breeding colonies, with as-yet-unknown ecological outcomes. As the appetite for industrial development of the Arctic increases, so too will the overlap between mineral deposits and denning habitats, with polar bears shifting from unstable sea ice onto land to give birth.

September’s sea-ice minimum was the second lowest in recorded history. Glaciers continue to recede at a record pace and temperatures in the Arctic continue to soar. Clearly, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the long-term persistence of polar bears. We must move beyond concern and take global actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The disappearance of polar bears—even if from only certain parts of the Arctic—would be a blow for the global south, but a concrete and immeasurable loss for Arctic Indigenous Peoples. We must all work together so polar bears can maintain their place in the Arctic ecosystem.

Melanie Lancaster
Senior Specialist, Arctic species
WWF Arctic Coordinating Team
polar bear map