All that remained of a 16-year-old polar bear found by scientists in northern Svalbard in Norway in July was “skin and bone.” The bear had starved to death because of climate change, says Dr. Ian Stirling of Polar Bears International. With the sea ice where the bears hunt for seals melting at a record-setting rate, the animals who are the iconic symbol of the Arctic are more and more not able to catch the main source of their diet.
While it is not entirely possible to pinpoint one cause of the polar bear’s death, Douglas Richardson, head of living collections at the Highland Wildlife Park, says that 16 is not “particularly old” for a male polar bear in the wild; most typically live into their early 20s.
Scientists who examined the bear’s body say that he was otherwise healthy. Some researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute had actually seen the bear in the southern part of Svalbard, an Arctic island archipelago, back in April, and noted that he appeared healthy. In previous years, the bear had been captured in the same place, suggesting that he was used to return there to hunt. But his severely emaciated body was found instead in northern Svalbard, 250 kilometers away. Scientists speculate that the bear may have walked two or three times that distance as it followed the fjords inland and headed north in its hunt for food.
Warmer temperatures are certainly altering the bear’s habitat and creating poor conditions for ice. As Prond Robertson of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, points out, “the sea ice break up around Svalbard in 2013 was both fast and very early.”
New NOAA Report Confirms Extremely Fast Rate of the Sea Ice Melting
A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) makes it all too clear how very fast the sea ice is melting due to climate change.
A team of American and British scientists conducting annual tests found that, last year, greenhouse gas emissions reached record levels in the Arctic and Greenland while temperatures in the Arctic increased at about twice the rate as those at lower latitudes. As a result, by June of 2012, snow cover fell to its lowest levels since such records were kept.
By September of 2012, the sea ice cover had shrunk to the lowest levels since satellite records were recorded. The sea ice cover is now 18 percent lower than the previous low in 2007 and a shocking 54 percent lower than in 1980.
“Record-breaking events” including unusually warm temperatures are becoming the new normal, the NOAA report underscores. They are also occurring inland in the Arctic. On July 11, 2012, 97 percent of Greenland’s ice sheet experienced surface melting. This past year, Alaska’s permafrost temperatures and those in the Canadian Arctic were at record highs in 2012.
The polar bear’s existence is closely tied to the sea ice. With the ice melting at such an accelerated rate, between one-third and a half of polar bears will perish in the next three generations in about 45 years, says the IUCN. The U.S. and Russian governments are even more pessimistic, saying that the losses of polar bears could be even higher — two-thirds could soon be gone — as the ice melts.
Otherwise, Polar Bears are Almost “Indestructible,” But…
Richardson of Highland Wildlife Park emphasizes that the 16-year-old made found in Svalbard is not the only one suffering such a fate. Rather, he says that “there are an increasing number of bears in this condition: they are just not putting down enough fat to survive their summer fast.”
“Once polar bears reach adulthood they are normally nigh on indestructible, they are hard as nails,” Richardson also comments. Sadly, and tragically, they have more than met their match in the face of greenhouse gas emissions and rising global temperatures that are causing the sea ice to melt, depriving the bears of food and the earth of a priceless species.
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