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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Polar Bears Under Pressure

A firsthand account documents how rising temperatures in the Arctic are depleting food sources and putting the animals at risk

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polar bear
Fireweed drapes a purple blanket over the disturbed soils of the coastal lowlands. Just a few days earlier, the flowers stood tall. Now, many are beaten down by a major storm that passed through, battering the exposed shores for a full day. Breakers more than 20 feet tall crashed against the boulder-covered beach. Our tent finally capitulated against the onslaught of the elements and collapsed on top of us. We spent the rest of the storm in a little shelter created from driftwood and a couple of tarps. Now 48 hours later, the Arctic coast is again bathed in sunshine, yet the ocean is still too rough for travel. We’re marooned on this spit of land measuring only a few hundred yards across that at high tide becomes an island.

We chose this spot because of the flowers that provide a colorful backdrop to the Arctic wildlife inhabiting the area. But we’re also here to document with our cameras how polar bears fare during an Arctic summer that has become warmer and longer in recent years because of global warming.

Information is somewhat conflicting on the impact of the recent temperature rise in the Arctic on polar bears. On one hand, there are reports indicating lower cub survival in Alaska. Bodies have been found drowned off the north shore of the state. In contrast to the past, pack ice in the summer is now often hundreds of miles offshore, providing the animals with almost no opportunity to hunt during the warm months of the year. In that part of the Arctic, the future of the polar bear, even in the short term, is uncertain, so the animal was put on the endangered species list in the United States.

polar bears
In other areas, the impact of global warming isn’t yet felt as badly as in Alaska. Several polar bear populations are presently increasing in numbers. Inuit living on the Hudson Bay coast of Arctic Canada report that there have never been as many polar bears as today. However, this may be primarily due to the fact that prior to 1970, the hunting pressure on bears was intense. In recent years, polar bear numbers have gone down around Churchill, the self-proclaimed polar bear capital of the world, and the average weight of the animals has dropped. But this also could be partly related to the closing of the town dump and increased human presence. There are still females with triplets observed almost every spring in the denning area south of Churchill, indicating that the mother was in very good condition at the time of entering the den. Our trip to the Arctic coast in summer will help us learn how the animals survive when there’s no ice to use as a hunting platform and to get an idea of what shape the bears are in.

In the first week, we saw the occasional bear patrolling the coastline for flotsam. Most of them were adult males who kept their distance and showed no interest in us at all. One young bear, probably in his first year on his own, hung around camp for a couple of days before moving off. Everything is different now because the storm brought a present on its wings. The high waves washed up a dead beluga whale 100 yards from our camp.

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