Polar Bear Week is an annual event that charts the polar bear migration from Churchill, Manitoba across the frozen Hudson Bay. This year, Polar Bears International and Frontiers North Adventures have teamed up to transmit live high-definition footage of the bears as they gather in what Canada likes to call the “polar bear capital of the world.” The livestream has been made available by explore.org and can be viewed below.
Every year, the planet’s southernmost polar bear population gathers in Churchill and waits for the bay to freeze over. Unfortunately, researchers are seeing less sea ice and fewer polar bears than in previous decades.
“When I first started here about 30 years ago, the population was about 1,200 bears, and now we’re down to about 800,” Andrew Derocher, a biology professor at the University of Alberta, told Takepart in a phone interview.
Disappearing sea ice is a problem shared across the Northern Hemisphere. A surfeit of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased both global surface temperatures and ocean temperatures, which has contributed to the gradual retreat of Arctic ice.
Not only do oceans absorb over 25 percent of the Earth’s carbon dioxide (which has led to a startling rate of ocean acidification), they also absorb over 90 percent of the heat associated with greenhouse gases. This has resulted in a visibly shrinking Arctic, as evidenced by NASA satellites over the last 40 years.
Disappearing sea ice also explains why 35,000 walruses came ashore in Alaska this September for the sixth time in the last eight years. For generations, walruses have used the floating ice as platforms to raise their young and search for food, but much of that ice has now drifted north where the water is too deep for diving.
This year, the Churchill polar bears are in the same proverbial boat, still waiting for the Hudson to ice over.
“It’s not normal that the bears should still be sitting on land, but there’s absolutely no ice on the bay yet, which we would expect this time of year,” said Derocher. “It definitely needs to be a lot colder before the bears are going anywhere.”
While the bears can feed on kelp, berries and goose eggs, seal blubber is “really what makes them work,” says Derocher – the bears can consume about 200 pounds of it per meal. But the bears can’t get to the seals without the ice.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Animal Ecology suggests that the Hudson Bay’s shortened ice pack season is having a negative influence on the region’s polar bear population. In traditional winters, polar bears cross the ice to fatten themselves on prey in preparation for the spring melt season. But “changes to the timing of migration have resulted in polar bears spending progressively longer periods of time on land without access to sea ice and their marine mammal prey,” the authors write.
This “new normal” has resulted in increased fasting periods for the bears, endangering mortality rates, especially for younger bears who have less body fat than adults.
“There’s virtually nothing we can do in the longer term to turn this one around,” says Derocher. Speaking of the Churchill bears, “in all estimates, they will probably blank out by midcentury, but this population could slip away in a few years if you got a really bad string of warm conditions.”
According to the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, half of Canada’s 13 population groups are now in decline.
How You Can Help
The theme of this year’s Polar Bear Week is “Take the next step!” Polar Bears International has created a petition asking world leaders to reduce greenhouse gases by stopping deforestation and investing in renewable energies. The UN will be discussing these initiatives at the upcoming Climate Conferences in Lima, Peru later this year and in Paris, France in 2015.
PBI also encourages the live feed viewers to create videos describing their pledges to live greener on behalf of the polar bears and then share them with the hashtag #SaveOurSeaIce.
For more facts about polar bears and dwindling sea ice, check out the infographic below: