Science & Sense

The Face of Climate Change

August 2013      

Polar bear scientists have long predicted that as the sea ice melts, polar bear survival rates will drop. Their projections show that we could lose two-thirds of the world's polar bears by mid-century and all of them by the end of the century unless we take aggressive action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.


But it can be hard to accept that when scientists talk about lower survival rates, what they really mean is that more and more polar bears will die of starvation.


This wrenching truth was brought home by the image of a dead, emaciated polar bear sighted this summer in Svalbard by scientist Ian Stirling and fellow travelers on an arctic Starved PB-Stirling expedition. As disturbing as the image is, it brings a face to what experts mean by a drop in polar bear numbers--and portends what the future holds across the polar bear's range without action to stop climate change.


Stirling examined the bear in question and found it to be little more than skin and bones. Without a research permit, he was unable to take tissue samples or perform a necropsy to definitively establish the cause of death. But given the bear's painfully thin condition and the prolonged lack of sea ice in the area, the likely cause of death was starvation. Without ice, polar bears can't reach their seal prey.


In a blog post for PBI, Stirling writes about other thin bears sighted in the area, contrasting them with healthy polar bears encountered farther to the north where the pack ice remained intact.


PB-Eating-Bearded-Seal-Stirling "Lower survival rates have been measured in Hudson Bay and in the Beaufort Sea, the two places where we know most about polar bears," says PBI chief scientist, Steve Amstrup. "They almost certainly are occurring elsewhere in the polar bear range--we just don't have data from those areas.


"But the salient point is the ultimate certainty that more and more bears will suffer from warming by starving. And for every bear that happens to die in a place where it's discovered by humans, many others are dying in anonymity because of the remoteness of their habitat and absence of people."  


Scientists emphasize that time remains for saving polar bears and the arctic ecosystem--but we simply can't delay action any longer. By documenting the profound changes taking place in the Arctic and communicating them with the public and policymakers, PBI scientists can help set guidelines for industry, inform management plans, and provide solid data on which governments can base decisions. And our education and action programs can inspire a groundswell of citizen support for government and business leadership that will set us on the right path.


But, we need your help if we are to save polar bears. At every opportunity, we all need to choose reduced dependence on fossil fuels. And we all need to work in our communities to effect change.


Most important, we need to speak up and let our elected leaders know that we support action on climate change--including legislation that levels the playing field for renewable energy by setting a fair price for carbon.  

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Photos by Ian Stirling
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