In summer when their preferred habitat, the sea ice, melts, polar bears must go onto land and wait until the next freeze-up. But a BBC Two crew making a documentary about the life cycle of icebergs, Operation Iceberg, has discovered that some spend the warmer months on tabular icebergs. These have cliff-like sides and flat tops and usually are formed after breaking off from an ice shelf, in this case, that of Greenland.
The BBC crew says they have found about twenty bears on the Petermann Iceberg in Baffin Bay, 50 kilometers off the Canadian coast. This iceberg was torn from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland back in July and, at 46 square miles, is about the size of Manhattan.
Presenter Chris Packham talked about what they are calling an iceberg “sanctuary”: “What’s there for them is security, and I think they are taking advantage of that. So I think they are living on this iceberg to stay safe, and just wait for the sea ice to come back in.”
More tabular icebergs have been observed breaking off from the Greenland ice sheet in recent years, another change the island is undergoing at a time of rising temperatures. The BBC Two team’s Operation Iceberg documentary is focusing on specifically what happens to an iceberg after they break off from their mother glaciers.
Polar bears, an endangered species, are the largest land predators and they do eat and kill people, Packham observes, but ”not because they are cornered and angry, nor because they are wounded or old, but simply because they are hungry.” While summering on the mainland in Greenland and Canada, polar bears are at risk of being killed by hunters, so the icebergs are indeed a refuge for them. Indeed, Operation Iceberg suggests a real interplay between the icebergs and polar bears, for whom the icebergs serve as towels as well as homes.
An biologist and polar bear expert, Steven Amstrup, noted that it is the first time he has heard of polar bears living in such large numbers on a tabular iceberg that is out at sea. While the bears could be taking refuge on the icebergs, it is also possible that they become “stranded” on them when, due to increased melting, more large icebergs break off.
Due to global warming, the amount of sea ice has been declining in recent years. Indeed, scientists are now predicting that, in just a decade there could be no sea ice at all in the summer, with dire implications for polar bears. Making do and adapting in changing circumstances: Polars bears are doing this in the face of threats from humans and rising temperatures that are slowly, inexorably, changing and even eliminating the habitat they have known for millennia. But where will they go as the amount of ice lessens and lessens?
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Photo by JUAN-VIDAL