Skinny polar bears and my first-hand account of Climate Change

Skinny polar bears and my first-hand account of Climate Change

I saw a polar bear in a zoo once. When I was a lot younger. I remember thinking, “huh, he isn’t doing anything, he is just lying there. This is kind of cool but kind of boring.” What I didn’t know then was this bear in the zoo was very fat; likely over-fed. He was healthy and also probably bored out of his mind. But healthy none-the-less. I’m constantly learning about our Arctic system and about the wildlife that live there and polar bears in the Arctic are neither over-fed, nor boring. Yes, polar bears sleep a lot but they are not boring.

A resting polar bear.

In 2010, Smith and colleagues published a paper on polar bear diet and how they are changing. These research scientists report that polar bears are seen earlier during the summer more and more in association with early ice break up. We all know the climate change stories indicating warming temperatures affecting ice and this ice break up forces polar bears hunting for seals to come ashore. These bears are having their hunting season cut short, and well, they are not over-fed and are looking for food. Arctic-breeding birds such as Common Eider and several goose and gull species fall subject to predation as bears travel nest to nest eating eggs. It can have devastating effects on reproduction for colony nesting birds. The scary part is that these observations reported in this 2010 paper were seen back as far as the year 2000, and frequency of observations have been continuously growing for the past 16 years.

Sow and her cub crossing the Nunavut Tundra, July 2016. Photo credit: Lena Ware

Evidence of climate change has been witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people, in many different ways. Severe weather events such as hurricanes causing flooding, or expansive uncontrolled forest fires alter the lives of people forever. This summer I witnessed climate change first hand for the first time. I saw skinny polar bears.

Bear print in the goose colony, Southampton Island Nunavut July 2016. Photo credit: Kevin Young

Bear print in the goose colony, Southampton Island Nunavut July 2016. Photo credit: Kevin Young

Now, what does a skinny polar bear even look like? I didn’t know a lot about bear ecology nor about their physiology. I was lucky to spend some time with biologists actually studying polar bears and bombard them with questions. Belly fat on a healthy bear coming inland from a winter of eating seals should be 3 or more inches thick. From far away it would be hard to tell how thick a bear’s belly fat is, but one researcher told me a healthy walking bear should jiggle like a massive ton of Jello.

“Southampton Island (Nunavut), now hosts 940,000 nesting geese. Hungry polar bears are finding their eggs. In 2004, on the Bay of God’s Mercy, a long polar bear over the course of two weeks, consumed the entire contents of 400 goose nests. In 2006, the field team at Coats Island watched bears systematically ransacking a goose colony, targeting nests, devouing eggs. In 2010, James Leafloor from Envionment Canada, conducting an aerial survey of nesting geese on Southampton and Coats Islands, counted ‘about 29 polar bears, many of them in snow goose colonies, far inland from the coast’. A summer diet of Arctic char and berries has proven no substitute for ringed seals. Polar bears may kill a ringed seal between one and three times a week. It’s hard to imagine how tiny goose eggs, no matter how plentiful or rich in protein and fat, can fully substitute for 100-pound ringed seals and their blubbery pups, compensate for a seal hunt now reducing each year, or offer a long-term reprieve for animals turned toward extinction as the sea ice retreats. Karyn Rode from the U.S. Geological Survey and her colleagues, analyzing this question from previous studies across the Arctic, are finding that based on data in western Hudson Bay, bird eggs might best offset only a day or two of time bears now lose foraging at sea.” -Deborah Cramer in her book; The Narrow Edge, Chapter 11 pg 198.

The beginnings of a Cackling goose nest. Photo credit: Lisa Kennedy

The beginnings of a Cackling goose nest. Photo credit: Lisa Kennedy

It’s obvious that eggs are not the solution for hungry bears and it’s a bit unnerving that such an iconic animal for North Americans and both resource-based and spiritual symbol for northern Inuit is in trouble. As a graduate student still learning about the Arctic environment and pursuing research, I found myself struck by the evidence of changing ice conditions and the impact it can have on polar bears. I read about it, saw it on the news and heard about at conferences, but it never really seemed as real than when I witnessed it firsthand. It will and has secured my pursuit as a research biologist indefinitely.

Photo credit: Kevin Young

Photo credit: Kevin Young

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