“Polar bears require more food to survive than thought,” read Friday’s heading in Scientific American. CNN International’s take: “Polar bears face extinction faster than thought, study says.”
The New York Times’ told a similar story: “What Cameras on Polar Bears Show Us: It’s Tough out There.”
“Polar bear videos reveal impact of melting Arctic sea ice,” CBS News reported.
“Polar Bears Are Fighting For Survival as Melting Arctic Ice Cuts Off Their Only Food Source,” Newsweek’s heading warned.
“Polar Bears Really Are Starving Because of Global Warming, Study Shows,” was National Geographic’s take.
BBC News took a simpler route: “Polar bears ‘running out of food,’ study says."
Results of a study on a group of polar bears off Alaska’s Arctic coast were published late last week in the journal Science, and they make for grim reading, even aside from the technical jargon and sheer weight of detail, as scientific reports tend to be. ”Regional declines in polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations have been attributed to changing sea ice conditions, but with limited information on the causative mechanisms. By simultaneously measuring field metabolic rates, daily activity patterns, body condition, and foraging success of polar bears moving on the spring sea ice, we found that high metabolic rates (1.6 times greater than previously assumed) coupled with low intake of fat-rich marine mammal prey resulted in an energy deficit for more than half of the bears examined.”
(Link to the original here: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6375/568.full)
In more simple terms that anyone can understand, the 2,600-word final report can be summarized in a few basic highlight notes:
Arctic sea ice is melting faster than expected. Faster even than the most dire predictions.
Temperatures are wamwarminging more quickly in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet, for whatever reason.
Polar bears need seals for food, in order to survive.
The less sea ice there is, the harder it is for the bears to get at the seals.
The harder it is for bears to find seals, the more energy they expend looking for those seals. This is not rocket science.
The more energy they expend, the more food they need to survive.
The less food bears find, the less energy they have to hunt.
And so on.
Over time, the process speeds up rather than slows down. If bears are in trouble today — and they are — then by tomorrow they be gone entirely.
This isn’t hyperbole or alarmist claptrap designed to gin up donations to conservation organizations — it’s basic fact.
Charles Darwin’s landmark studies in species survival are often mistranslated as “Survival of the Fittest,” when in fact Darwin’s theory of evolution focused in the main on natural selection — a species' ability to adapt to a changing environment, rather than which individual species is best positioned to win a physical fight.
Polar bears could adapt to a life without sea ice and seals, given time. But they don’t have that time.
And eating out of garbage dumps in Churchill, Manitoba one month of the year isn’t going to cut it.
Polar bears are terrific swimmers — adaptability at work — but they’re not sea mammals. They’re not whales. In open water — i.e. the open ocean — they will drown.
They stay close to land in most cases, and need ice floes to climb onto and rest. If there are no ice floes — and in recent summers, Arctic sea ice has disappeared entirely and the Northwest Passage has opened up to regular sea traffic — they will drown as quickly as any grizzly or black bear that suddenly finds itself out at sea, with nowhere to swim to.
The study tracked nine female polar bears fitted with high-tech tracking collars and GPS cameras, as they foraged for food in the Beaufort Sea, off the coast of Alaska. The study was sponsored by the United States Geological Survey and conducted by researchers from the University of California Santa Cruz (UC-Santa Cruz) over the course of three consecutive springs, in 2014, 2015 and 2016 (https://news.ucsc.edu/2018/02/polar-bears.html).
The study follows on the heels of dramatic — and heartbreaking — video footage that went viral in early December, of a disoriented, starving polar bear in Canada’s far north. That video, taken by one-time biologist-turned-photographer and environmental activist Paul NIcklen, together with National Geographic lecturer and photojournalist Cristina Mittermeier, founders of the non-profit group Sea Legacy, shook ordinary, everyday people to the core, because it showed a tragedy-in-the-making in simple, stark, emotional terms that no peer-reviewed scientific study can. (Nicklen and Mittermeier’s work is easy to find; Nicklen, a former Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Mittermeier, an environmental photographer who specializes in indigenous cultures throughout the Americas and Pacific Region, have had their work exhibited in galleries around the world.)
The original video — warning: it’s not easy to watch — can be found by following the links from National Geographic’s main website (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/polar-bears-starve-melting-sea-ice-global-warming-study-beaufort-sea-environment/) reignited the debate about what’s happening to the world’s polar bears.
Since the polar bear is one of the most easily recognized and readily identifiable living beings on the planet, it highlights a basic, simple question anyone and everyone needs to be asking themselves:
If we can’t save an iconic species like the polar bear, what can we save? Food for thought, if not exactly food for the bears.
A note on the video links below: The first is a generic news item from earlier in the week from CNN International, about the USGS UC-Santa Cruz survey. The second is an 18-minute TED Talk Paul Nicklen gave in 2011. Yes, that’s years ago now but, if anything, it’s even more relevant today than then. It has everything you might expect from a TED Talk: a compelling story, a charismatic storyteller, and a real emotional punch at the end. Well worth seeing, and seeing all the way through.