Video: Without Sea Ice, Polar Bears Go Hungry

Cristina Mittermeier / Sea Legacy / instagram (@cristinamittermeier)

By The Maritime Executive 12-11-2017 07:45:15

Last week, a photographer for National Geographic created a viral sensation with imagery of an emaciated polar bear trapped far from its feeding grounds by a shortage of sea ice. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects that shrinking habitat will negatively affect the world's 25,000-31,000 remaining polar bears unless action is taken to slow the decline in Arctic sea ice cover, which the bears rely on in order to hunt seals. Without ice floes, bears like the one depicted below may be trapped on land for half the year, where they may succumb to starvation while awaiting the return of cold weather. Arctic ice cover has been shrinking at a rate of about five percent per decade, and the USFWS estimates that at least 80 percent of polar bear populations will suffer negative effects if this rate continues. Some researchers believe that the species could be extinct by the end of the century.

"In addition to being illegal to feed wildlife, polar bears like this one need several hundred pounds of meat to survive,” wrote photographer Cristina Mittermeier. “We didn’t have a weapon and we didn’t have any food. There literally was nothing we could do for him.”

Some polar bear populations have managed to offset the loss of their usual hunting grounds by altering their feeding patterns, preying on snow goose eggs and char (a freshwater fish), but biologists caution that the bears are unlikely to be able to replace seals as their primary food source. Some mainland populations have begun to move south, following drifting ice, and researchers have reported instances of a hybridized species from the interbreeding of polar bears and grizzly bears as their ranges begin to overlap. For now, populations in northern Greenland and the Canadian Arctic islands are actually growing as warm-water seal species expand their range into the warming Arctic, though it is uncertain whether these groups will continue to thrive.

Conservationists suggest that there are a limited number of options for ensuring a viable polar bear gene pool in the coming decades. These include:

- Relocating groups of polar bears to the Antarctic, which would give them access to ice and prey but would have unpredictable consequences for the native wildlife;
- Maintaining more bears in zoos; 
- Feeding polar bear populations in the wild; or
- Maintaining the extent of Arctic sea ice.