Researchers have determined that polar bear populations will likely drop by 30% as soon as 35 years from now. The number of wild polar bears will continue to plummet as climate change results in the loss of Arctic ice and their natural habitat. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Biology Letters.
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are large carnivores found in the Arctic Circle. They spend most of their time on the ice looking for seals, their favored prey, or in the water. Unfortunately, their habitat is literally melting as climate change continues to warm the Arctic. As the bears lose more of their home, they can’t locate food and begin to starve. Sudden melting of ice patches can also cause the bears to drown, adding yet another danger. Finally, malnutrition and loss of habitat contribute to cub mortality—causing polar bear populations to sharply decrease. These issues, combined with pollution concerns, have resulted in polar bears being added to the IUCN Red List as “vulnerable.”
A team of researchers used existing data and mathematical models to predict polar bear population changes over the next few generations. They looked at best and worst case scenarios. Even in the better scenarios, the results were distressing. The team found that a third of the polar bear population was likely to disappear within 35 to 41 years. The population would only continue to plummet from there until the species became critically endangered.
The team’s findings point to a serious conservation problem. If climate change continues to raise temperatures in the Arctic, melting sea ice, polar bears will lose their habitat and the ability to find consistent food. The team agrees with the current status of “vulnerable” for polar bears though the species may end up being moved to the endangered species list in the near future.
Regehr et al. Conservation status of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to projected sea-ice declines. Biology Letters (2016).