Few images express the danger of climate change as visually as the polar bear: the great bears are literally seeing the ice melt beneath their feet and their world shrink as a result of global warming.
Polar bears tend to live at the edge of ice packs. In addition to the Arctic Refuge, they live in the colder regions around Canada, the United States, Greenland and northern Europe. They use floating ice as a means to hunt seals, mostly in the spring and summer, saving up energy to survive the harsher winter months. But Arctic temperatures are rising at double the global average rate, and ice is receding by up to 4 percent decade on decade.
The changing face of their hunting grounds means polar bears have less time each year to hunt for the sustenance they require. Although they can actually slow their own metabolism after a few days without eating, scientists have observed lower average weights, and declining survival rates for cubs.
Now, the polar bear is facing yet another attack, as Republican leaders in Congress are seeking to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—a critical polar bear habitat—to dangerous oil drilling. Grist notes that the GOP is “using some very shaky math to justify drilling in the Arctic refuge.”
“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the most important onshore denning habitat for America’s vanishing polar bears,” according to Defenders for Wildlife. It is “home to one of only two polar bear populations in the United States, the Southern Beaufort Sea population, roughly 1,500 bears rely on the refuge for survival.”
Defenders adds that “Industrial-scale oil and gas development could destroy the pristine nature of the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain forever, damaging natural habitats and harming the wildlife that calls the area home.”
The bears are facing a fundamental shift in the landscape in which they’ve evolved over thousands of years. Chukchi Sea polar bears have seen a 75 percent loss of habitat space in the summer months, yet their methods of habitat selection haven’t changed. It is not clear whether they are unable to change their ways, or simply that they have discovered that potential hunting grounds are no more productive than those they already stalk.
Meanwhile, the dens polar bears dig for protection from harsh conditions are more and more liable to collapse. Warming winter temperatures have inherently compromised these structures. This is of particular alarm for the long-term well-being of the species, as the dens are specifically created by mother bears to shield cubs of up to two years old.
We can remain informed and share information and love for these emblematic beasts with those around us. The infographic below highlights some amazing facts about polar bears and flags some of the harsh truths they currently face.
Infographic courtesy Manitobahot.com.