The world’s deadliest apex predator is on shrinking ice, and he’s not happy.
Could we be witnessing the last of the polar bears? An Arctic Report Card released in early December reveals that the Arctic Circle is warming at astonishing rate, shrinking the available sea ice and driving polar bears inland onto land in incredible numbers.
One result is the emergence of a new genre of photography: the wandering polar bear against a lonely, barren, melting landscape. Photographer Patty Waymire has developed a reputation for taking heartbreaking images of polar bears wandering across a bleak, snow-less backdrop.
Think of the polar bear as the king of the Arctic Jungle. It is the largest of all bear species. One of the most powerful of earth’s apex predators, it has been the poster child for global warming since the 2008 federal decision to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Sport hunting once posed a significant danger to polar bears, greatly shrinking their numbers in some areas until 1973. That’s when an agreement among the Arctic countries restricted hunting to members of indigenous groups, and the populations began to rebound.
In November, the extent of Arctic sea ice was lower than ever recorded for that month. Over five days in mid-November the ice cover lost more than 19,000 square miles, a decline that the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado called “almost unprecedented” for that time of year.
“The Arctic is getting persistently warmer; sea ice is continuing to show declines, particularly during the summer months,” Jeremy Mathis, climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the report card’s authors, told NPR. “The second big story for 2016 has been the winter temperatures.”
Mathis says it wasn’t so long ago that the temperature in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he lives, would drop to minus 40 F for weeks at a time in the winter.
“Now since about 2012 and 2013, it’s pretty rare for the temperature to even hit minus 40 in Fairbanks,” he says.
Scientific studies have revealed that C02 (carbon dioxide) levels have never reached the level of 300 parts per million (ppm) in the last 10,000 years. Until now. Over the last few years studies have consistently recorded levels far greater than that.
The result is a vicious feedback loop that results in polar waters warming at faster and faster rates. Open water in the Arctic stores heat that lingers on into the fall and early winter even after the sun has set for the year. Sea ice, on the other hand, keeps the air above it cold. Less sea ice, less cold air.
As the ice melts, the warming cycle speeds up. Snow and ice reflect a lot of sunlight back into space. But the melting snow exposes darker ground and water that absorb more of the sun’s heat.
As well as the drop in their overall numbers, scientist have seen changes in the bears’ physical condition, body size, reproduction and survival rates, the Times reports. And scientists have linked some of these changes to a loss of sea ice and an increase in ice-free days in the areas where the bears live.
The situation is dire, but the polar bear can still be saved from extinction. Nineteen sub-populations of polar bears inhabit five countries that ring the Arctic Circle — Canada, the United States, Norway, Greenland and Russia.
Of those, three populations, including the polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea, are falling in number.
But six other populations are stable. One is increasing. And scientists have so little information about the remaining nine that they are unable to gauge their numbers or their health.
As the bears leave the ice and push inland, interaction between bears and humans is becoming more common, exposing the polar bears to more stress and the people to more danger.
So far, there have been no attacks on humans, but there have been some close calls, according to the Times.
“When polar bears are fat and happy and in good condition, they’re not that big of a threat,” said James Wilder, an expert who recently completed a study of polar bear attacks on humans, told the Times. “But when they get skinny and nutritionally stressed, you’ve got to watch out.”