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

Alone within the Arctic, surrounded by disappearing sea ice … few fables of the local weather disaster are higher identified 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 may develop into 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 “accidental” image of the local weather disaster is unhelpful and never universally true to this point, 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 easier to tell the public simple stories: the sea ice is melting so polar bears are doing worse. But biology and ecology are very complicated,” 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 are 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 Photographs

Regardless of this dramatic change in circumstances, nonetheless, 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’s 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 have to say that I’m a bit surprised that polar bears do so well in Svalbard because the changes have been so big. They have three to four months’ less sea ice now than three decades ago on average, which is a lot. If someone told us 20 to 30 years ago that the ice would be in this situation, most of us would have guessed that polar bears would have done worse than they’re actually doing,” he says.

The difficult world perspective of the estimated 26,000 wild polar bears – which has massive information gaps in Russia and elements of Greenland – has a lot to do with varieties of sea ice, that are grouped into 4 ecoregions – seasonal, divergent, convergent and archipelago – in keeping with 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 come back on shore, the place there’s little to eat.

In Svalbard, the ice strikes away from the shore in summer time, 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 also be within the divergent group, nonetheless, the place the waters are among the many least productive within the Arctic and help fewer seals, the polar bear populations are struggling.

“We can’t talk about a global state of the bears [because of the data gaps],” says Prof Andrew Derocher, a polar bear professional on the College of Alberta, who authored a few of the early research concerning the impact of local weather change on polar bears. “You have to take a more subpopulation perspective. Some are doing well, some are not. This creates a lot of confusion working with Inuit hunters in Canada who say they’re seeing lots of bears. I say, ‘Yes, because you live in an area where there are lots of bears but there are other places where they are not doing as well’.”

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

Final 12 months, the state of affairs 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 help searching.

“In the Canadian context, the polar bear being a symbol of climate change has caused a lot of problems,” Derocher says. “We used to have a good relationship with Inuit hunters. A lot of the hunters that I know think that polar bears will do OK with climate change and it has created some interesting tensions.”

Though Derocher is pessimistic concerning the future for a lot of subpopulations, together with the bears in Svalbard, he says: “We’ve got areas of polar bear distribution that are going to be quite robust to the effects of climate change. I always say polar bears are an accidental icon of climate change. It’s not a ‘skies falling’ scenario or Chicken Little time. But what we have to do is look at our trajectories decades into the future.”

Beneath a high-emissions situation, many subpopulations may disappear solely this century, warn some scientists. Derocher says that the favored story of the polar bear is more likely to play out, growing 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 have 19 populations of polar bears across the Arctic and 19 different scenarios are playing out over time,” says Derocher. “I think that our best analysis is that all of those 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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