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Polar Bears Are Learning To Adapt To A Life Without Sea Ice, Says New Study

Salva Mubarak
Senior Features Writer

Jeff Goldblum’s iconic “life finds a way” line from Jurassic Park (1993) is one of the first things that came to mind on seeing new reports of a species of polar bears adapting to a life without sea ice.

Over the past decade, polar bears have become somewhat of a symbol of climate change, with images of a lone polar bear clinging to a floating piece of glacier making for a haunting image that accurately represents the impact of climate change on the environment.

But in rare hopeful news, scientists have discovered a new species of polar bear in Greenland that is learning to survive without sea ice.

In a research published in Science journal, University of Washington researchers reveal that a group of polar bears has been discovered in southeastern Greenland that have adapted to life without sea ice by hunting on glacier ice.

The unexpected findings suggest that the species, which typically relies on sea ice for hunting seals, may prove resilient in the face of continued loss of sea ice because of climate change.

“When you start to look at how polar bears might survive in small numbers in parts of an ice-free Arctic, this type of glacial habitat might be a refuge,” said Dr. Kristin Laidre, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory and the paper’s first author.

This new species comprises of a few hundred bears that live in fjords and have been isolated from other polar bear populations. They were spotted hunting year-round in slushy freshwater zone where Greenland’s glaciers and ice-covered fjords flow into the North Atlantic Ocean, a practice that is unusual for polar bears.

“The way they’ve persisted in this area is they have access to glacial ice that is basically freshwater ice that is pouring off the Greenland ice sheets in the form of glaciers,” said Dr. Laidre, “It then breaks off and it creates an ice landscape. It’s an uncommon habitat for polar bears.”

For the study, researchers tracked these bears with radio collars and combined seven years of data that includes inputs from indigenous residents on these bears’ locations, behaviour, and feeding patterns. However, this does not indicate whether polar bears in Alaska, Canada, or Russia, could adapt like the Greenland bears have. So even if the news seems optimistic, polar bears are still facing an uphill battle to survive and avoid complete extinction.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the worldwide population, currently, is just about 26,000 with 19 distinct population groups spread across the Arctic regions of Canada, Russia, Alaska, Greenland, and Norway.

NASA satellite observations have shown that summer sea ice is disappearing at a rate of 13% per decade. This has severely alarmed researchers as it indicates that polar bears are at the brink of extinction, perhaps as soon as the end of this century if climate change continues at its current pace.

This new species of polar bears, while surviving, are not thriving. According to the study, they are smaller in size and are reproducing more slowly.

“There’s a limit to what they can adapt to,” Ian Stirling, adjunct professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Biological Sciences and a research scientist emeritus with Environment Canada, told the Wall Street Journal, “For 95% of the bears, when the sea ice is gone, they will be in very big trouble.”