Why it may be time to stop using the polar bear as a symbol of the climate crisis | Polar regions

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Alone within the Arctic, surrounded by disappearing sea ice … few fables of the local weather disaster are higher recognized than the plight of the polar bear. The marine mammals are closely depending on sea ice for searching, and because the Arctic warms, scientists warn they are going to grow to be extinct throughout a lot of the area.

Long run declines have already been recorded in three of the 19 polar bear subpopulations discovered throughout the Arctic, together with these within the western a part of Hudson Bay in Canada – among the many most southerly populations – whose numbers dropped from an estimated 842 to 618 between 2016 and 2021.

However some researchers warn that this “unintended” image of the local weather disaster is unhelpful and never universally true thus far, and may undermine conservation efforts by driving distrust with some Indigenous communities within the Arctic. They are saying different species are higher suited as symbols of wildlife threatened by a warming world.

“It’s simpler to inform the general public easy tales: the ocean ice is melting so polar bears are doing worse. However biology and ecology are very difficult,” says Prof Jon Aars, who has been main polar bear analysis on the Norwegian Polar Institute on Svalbard since 2003.

The Norwegian archipelago is essentially the most quickly warming a part of planet Earth. Temperatures there have risen 4C on common previously 50 years and an enormous quantity of sea ice has disappeared, elevating fears for the survival of the 300 bears which can be based mostly there, a part of a wider Barents Sea inhabitants of round 3,000 between Svalbard and the Franz Josef Land islands in Russia.

Three polar bears standing on rocks near the Svalbard Islands, Norway.
The polar bear inhabitants in Svalbard, Norway, has but to expertise a decline. {Photograph}: Anadolu Company/Getty Photos

Regardless of this dramatic change in circumstances, nevertheless, the polar bear inhabitants on Svalbard has but to expertise a decline. This may very well be as a result of the mammals are nonetheless recovering from the pressures of searching, which was banned in Norway in 1973, and Aars doesn’t rule out a future collapse. There may be rising proof that the bears are switching searching practices – focusing on reindeer in addition to seals, a change that was first documented on the archipelago in 2021. “Denning” – behaviour round making dens – has modified and bears are swimming lengthy distances, however, says Aars, there’s nonetheless sufficient sea ice within the spring for the bears to hunt efficiently.

“I’ve to say that I’m a bit shocked that polar bears accomplish that nicely in Svalbard as a result of the modifications have been so large. They’ve three to 4 months’ much less sea ice now than three a long time in the past on common, which is rather a lot. If somebody advised us 20 to 30 years in the past that the ice can be on this scenario, most of us would have guessed that polar bears would have carried out worse than they’re truly doing,” he says.

The difficult world perspective of the estimated 26,000 wild polar bears – which has large information gaps in Russia and elements of Greenland – has a lot to do with kinds of sea ice, that are grouped into 4 ecoregions – seasonal, divergent, convergent and archipelago – in response to Dr Steven Amstrup, chief scientist emeritus at Polar Bears Worldwide. In Hudson Bay, the place the ice is seasonal, longer fasting intervals are forcing bears to return on shore, the place there’s little to eat.

In Svalbard, the ice strikes away from the shore in summer season, making a divergent ecoregion the place the image is unsure. The Norwegian archipelago is surrounded by the wealthy waters of a continental shelf and in spring – the essential searching season for polar bears – there’s sufficient protection for them to seek out seal pups. Within the Beaufort Sea close to Alaska, which can be within the divergent group, nevertheless, the place the waters are among the many least productive within the Arctic and assist fewer seals, the polar bear populations are struggling.

“We will’t speak about a world state of the bears [because of the data gaps],” says Prof Andrew Derocher, a polar bear skilled on the College of Alberta, who authored a few of the early research concerning the impact of local weather change on polar bears. “You need to take a extra subpopulation perspective. Some are doing nicely, some usually are not. This creates lots of confusion working with Inuit hunters in Canada who say they’re seeing a lot of bears. I say, ‘Sure, since you stay in an space the place there are many bears however there are different locations the place they don’t seem to be doing as nicely’.”

A polar bear standing on melting ice.
The picture of a polar bear stranded on a shard of melting ice has grow to be an emblem of the local weather disaster. {Photograph}: Bj Kirschhoffer/Getty Photos

Final 12 months, the scenario was additional difficult with the invention of what seems to be a twentieth remoted subpopulation in Greenland that has tailored to make use of ice from glaciers to assist searching.

“Within the Canadian context, the polar bear being an emblem of local weather change has prompted lots of issues,” Derocher says. “We used to have a superb relationship with Inuit hunters. A variety of the hunters that I do know suppose that polar bears will do OK with local weather change and it has created some fascinating tensions.”

Though Derocher is pessimistic concerning the future for a lot of subpopulations, together with the bears in Svalbard, he says: “We’ve obtained areas of polar bear distribution which can be going to be fairly sturdy to the results of local weather change. I at all times say polar bears are an unintended icon of local weather change. It’s not a ‘skies falling’ state of affairs or Hen Little time. However what we now have to do is take a look at our trajectories a long time into the longer term.”

Below a high-emissions state of affairs, many subpopulations may disappear fully this century, warn some scientists. Derocher says that the favored story of the polar bear is prone to play out, rising human-wildlife battle as polar bears starve, with an increase in deaths, such because the latest assault on three individuals in Quebec Within the two remaining ice ecoregions – convergent, the place separate items of ice merge, and archipelago, the place there’s essentially the most ice protection – polar bears are anticipated to do okay.

“We’ve 19 populations of polar bears throughout the Arctic and 19 totally different eventualities are enjoying out over time,” says Derocher. “I believe that our greatest evaluation is that each one of these usually are not going extinct this century.”

Discover extra age of extinction protection right here, and comply with biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the most recent information and options

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