A thin polar bear mother and cub in Svalbard.

This thin polar bear mom and cub made the difficult choice to summer on land, away from their seal prey, rather than risk trying to swim long distances to reach the retreating ice. The Barents Sea has experienced more sea ice loss than anywhere else in the polar bear's range.

© Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

8/13/2018 4:02:08 PM

Barents Sea Polar Bears

By Alysa McCall, Director of Conservation Outreach and Staff Scientist

“A small pat of butter,” is how our guide, Mette, describes what to look for through the spotting scope. I thought my “bear eyes” had been well trained, but they are no match for this rocky landscape. I again scan the distant island slowly and, finally, notice a yellow mound on a patch of snow—a polar bear mom and cub.

My colleague, Kt Miller, and I joined the ocean conservation non-profit, Mission Blue, in Svalbard, Norway this summer. We cruised up the west coast of Spitsbergen Island in the S/V Linden, a tall ship dedicated to sustainable tourism, slipping quietly into fjords and close to melting glaciers while searching for wildlife. I have spent many seasons watching polar bears in Canada; seeing them in Norway was unlike anything I have experienced.

Svalbard polar bears are part of the Barents Sea subpopulation; these bears are losing their sea ice habitat faster than anywhere else in the species’ range due to climate warming. Already, these bears have lost 20 weeks of sea ice compared to several decades ago, leading to reduced opportunities to hunt their main prey, ice seals, and more difficulty in sustaining body fat. Unfortunately, the ice-free period is only lengthening, and rapidly.

We saw no sea ice during the trip, even where it should have been stretching out at 80 degrees north or blocking our route in fjords. The lack of sea ice is forcing Barents Sea bears into tough decisions: stay on land and try to forage on low-calorie terrestrial foods while conserving as much energy as possible until sea ice freezes in the fall, or travel north as the sea ice retreats and continue trying to hunt seals while expending more energy farther from home? 

Fjords that should have been choked with sea ice were ice-free.

Fjords that should have been choked with sea ice were ice-free.

Such decisions have consequences, especially for pregnant females. On Svalbard, some denning areas are no longer accessible at all, others are now harder to get to, and some no longer have nearshore sea ice available to hunt on when hungry moms emerge from their dens with little cubs. Life in the Arctic is getting harder, and not only for those at the top of the food chain.

Besides polar bears, we saw many other members of the Arctic food chain including walrus, bearded seals, beluga whales, puffins, Arctic foxes, and even jelly-like ctenophores (plankton). It was incredible to watch these animals in their natural environment but sobering to remember that their continued existence depends on us protecting their sea ice home. These same animals will likely, within their own lifetimes, experience hardship as their habitat declines. Their descendants will, almost assuredly, experience an ice-free Barents Sea year-round in the coming decades. Luckily, we know how to protect this ecosystem and help it bounce back, thereby conserving the creatures that depend on it including ourselves. 

A bearded seal rests on a remnant patch of ice.

A bearded seal rests on a remnant patch of ice. The lack of a platform of ice makes it difficult for polar bears to catch their seal prey. Photo copyright Kt Miller/Polar Bears International.

Sea ice will melt as long as carbon emissions continue to rise. If we do not act now, we could lose Earth’s natural air conditioner and its ability to cool and regulate global temperatures. Around the world, changes are being made by leaders and communities to reduce fossil fuel consumption, but we must do more to reduce the heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Switching to cleaner energy sources and living more sustainably with our environment will help protect Arctic sea ice, plankton, polar bears, people, and everything in between.

We all climb into a smaller Zodiac boat and set off for a closer look at the polar bears, the only ones we will end up seeing on our trip. We hang back when they swim to the neighboring island, the cub hitching a ride on mom’s back. For over an hour we watch and listen to the family’s interactions on the next island. The bears are not concerned with their future but with who had dibs on the scrap of blubber found on shore; both are thin and it could be a long time before their next meal, so every bite counts.

I am grateful to have seen this region now before even more changes occur. Hopefully it will not change too much before I get back, and maybe next time I’ll even see some sea ice. 

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