Canaries in the Arctic: New Study Shows Stunning Polar Bear Decline

The polar bear—stranded on a shrinking ice floe and struggling to survive as global warming melts its Arctic habitat and limits its access to prey—has become one of the iconic symbols of climate change.

But beyond the poignant symbolism, the truth remains this: the polar bears are in big trouble.

According to a new study published in the current issue of Ecological Applications, the polar bear population in eastern Alaska and western Canada has declined approximately 40 percent in recent years.

“Global warming has put Alaska’s polar bears in a deadly downward spiral. It’s happening now, it’s killing polar bears now, and if we don’t act now, we will lose polar bears in Alaska.”
—Sarah Uhlemann, Center for Biological Diversity

The investigation, conducted by a team of researchers from the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS), Environment Canada, and other groups, found that the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population (one of just two polar bear populations in the U.S.) has dropped to just 900 bears, a severe decline since the last estimate in 2006 that documented more than 1,500 bears.

In addition, just two of 80 polar bear cubs that the international team tracked between 2004  and 2007 survived, according to Jeff Bromaghin, USGS research statistician and lead author of the study. Normally about half of the cubs live.

The scientists hypothesized that low survival directly resulted from “unfavorable ice conditions that limited access to prey during multiple seasons,” among other factors. “[T]he thinning and increasingly mobile winter ice is susceptible to breaking up and rafting, which can create rough and jumbled ice conditions that may make it harder for polar bears to capture seals,” according to a USGS press release. 

“Here are concrete numbers to show us that the impacts of climate change are happening now,” declared Margaret Williams, managing director of World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Program. “We need to change course if we want to stop further habitat loss and ensure resilient wildlife populations, both in the Arctic and around the world.”