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Is it springtime for Polar Bear Populations? Are scientists hiding good news?

Numerous reports of polar bear population surveys from different locations such as M’Clintock Channel and Viscount Melville (completed 2016), Southern Beaufort and Gulf of Boothia (completed 2017) and Davis Strait (completed 2018) have not been published yet despite all being likely to be released by 2019 or sooner. The official International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Lost global population estimate for the polar bear (2015) is 22,000-31,000 (average 26,000) but surveys conducted since then peg the numbers at an average of 29,500.

Svalbard: Can a parallel be drawn?

According to Norwegian biologists Arctic regions have changed drastically since 1979, more than any other geography in the world particularly the summer sea  ice habitat. Yet, the polar bears in the Svalbard area of the Barents Sea hardly showed any negative impacts from the low sea ice years of 2016 through 2019. A survey of the coast of Alaska in 2019 documented 31 fat, healthy polar bears onshore in July compared to only three in 2017 which contradicts repeated claims that the southern Beaufort population is declining and nutritionally stressed.

Polar Bears: Dependent on Sea Ice

It is a well known fact that polar bears are heavily dependent on sea ice as a platform to hunt for their favorite food, seals and also to nurse their offspring. But, there is a deeper connection between the ice sheets and the bears. The ice sheets are host to the most fundamental component in the arctic food chain, sea ice algae. The sea ice algae are the primary food sources of different species of critters and zooplankton which are consumed by fishes and other creatures, which in turn make up the diets for the seals and beluga whales, the polar bears primary food sources. So, this apex predator’s survival is inexplicably intertwined with the arctic levels in more ways than one.

Polar Bear Population Distribution

Around 60-80 percent of the world’s polar bears live in Canada. The polar bear has 19 distinct subpopulations [3]. The WWF infographic below depicts the distribution of the polar bear across the North Pole: 

Picture Courtesy: Arcticwwf.org

Primitive Data: A major bottleneck

 Moreover, data on the body condition of female bears and survival of cubs in Western Hudson Bay, both critical measures of polar bear population and health have not been released since the last 25 years. Certain favourable climatic events, the 2019 freeze-up of sea ice in Western Hudson Bay coming as early in the autumn as it did in the 1980s (for the third year in a row) and sea ice breakup in spring was like the 1980s as well, might have aided the result that polar bears onshore were in excellent condition. Nonetheless, all observers and stakeholders are of the opinion that the data on polar bears in West Hudson, collected over the last 25 years should be released at the earliest if the public are to take seriously repeated claims of harm to their health and survival due to climate change. Rresearchers have been citing decades-old figures to support their statements that shrinking ice levels have negatively impacted the polar bear’s body condition and population.

Bears come knocking

Belushya Guba and Ryrkaypiy are two settlements at the opposite ends of the Russian Arctic which were besieged by more than 50 polar bears in 2019, making 2019 the year of polar bear ‘invasion’. It can only either one of two possibilities, first, it might point towards rapidly declining ice levels resulting in loss of habitat and subsequent human animal conflict or it is an encouraging indicator of a burgeoning polar bear population.  In the  State of the Polar Bear Report 2019 [1], published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) on International Polar Bear Day, Dr Susan Crockford speculates that the delay in the publishing of polar bear census numbers suggests that populations might not have declined.

References: 

[1] Crockford SJ (2020) The State of the Polar Bear 2019. Report 39, The Global Warming Policy Foundation.

[2] The surprising reason polar bears need sea ice to survive. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/04/polar-bears-algae-sea-ice-warming/

[3] POLAR BEAR POPULATION, World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Available at : https://arcticwwf.org/species/polar-bear/population/

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