Expert: Climate change threatens a decline in the population of polar bears

Expert: Climate change threatens a decline in the population of polar bears

23 August 2017

Andrei Boltunov, leading specialist on polar bears, General Director of the Research and Expedition Centre for the Study of Marine Mammals, member of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group discusses possible consequences of the disappearance of sea ice and how the King of the Arctic is adapting to the new environment.


- Global warming could not but affect polar bears. It is believed that the disappearance of the ice cover will drive polar bears farther into the depths of the Arctic. How true is this?


- In my point of view, it is more correct to speak about global climate change, although there is no doubt that the ice cover in the Arctic is no longer what it was even in the late 1990s. It reached a record low in the autumn of 2007. For more than 10 years now, all of us, including polar bears, have been living amid anomalously low ice coverage in the Arctic seas. Apart from that, the composition of ices has changed – there are practically no old perennial ices left in our sector of the Arctic – and this is also of much importance for the polar bear.


In different parts of their area, polar bears respond differently to the characteristics of their key habitat, the sea ice cover, that have taken shape over the last decade. In fact, a part of the population follows the retreating ice to the north, while another part waits for the ice-free season to pass onto islands and the continent’s coast. These “coastal waiters” make up the majority of several dozens of animals that we have managed to study in recent years. It is hard to say whether our monitoring reflects the natural picture. The sampling is too small.


- How has the disappearance of the ice affected the predator’s lifestyle?


- The disappearance of the ice certainly has a negative impact on things. If there is sea ice, polar bears do not linger on the coast for long. It is safer on the ice and there are much better conditions for hunting ringed seals and bearded seals, their main prey.


On the coast, polar bears often clash with humans (they visit settlements and infrastructure facilities, industrial plants, military installations, etc.). Our research shows (the data has not been published as yet) that these bears are less healthy than their brethren that keep away from humans. This is the consequence of their visits to rubbish heaps and direct or indirect contacts with domestic animals.


- How are they adapting to climate change? Is it really a serious threat to the species? Or can polar bears adjust to any conditions?


- The polar bear is a comparatively young and highly flexible species. They can’t adapt to all sorts of conditions, of course, but, certainly, to many. They are able to shift to new sorts of prey. Naturally, if conditions of life deteriorate (the key habitat shrinks), a population will respond with a drop in numbers. However, the polar bears are a long-living and slowly proliferating species. This response is rather tardy and does not follow immediately on the heels of deterioration. But it will also take a long time to emerge from the resultant “demographic hole.”


Climate change per se is unlikely to destroy the species. But because of the ongoing changes, the predator can be encountered on the coast more often and this makes things easier for poachers and illegal hunters. Encounters and clashes between bears and humans are also more frequent and in the majority of cases the “troublemaker,” a bear, ends up killed. All of this can lead to a perceptible drop in the numbers of the population.