Polar Bears Threatened By Climate Change, Action Urged Now
February 6, 2013

Arctic Warming Trends Could Send Some Polar Bear Populations Into Decline

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

An international group of scientists, led by a University of Alberta polar bear researcher, is urging governments to prepare for rapid Arctic ecosystem change to deal with a climate change catastrophe for the polar bears.

University of Alberta professor Andrew Derocher is one of the authors of a policy perspective recently published online in the journal Conservation Letters that urges governments with polar bear populations to accept that a single unexpected jump in Arctic warming trends could send some polar bear populations into a precipitous decline.

“It´s a fact that early sea ice breakup, late ice freeze-up and the overall reduction in ice pack are taking their toll,” said Derocher. “We want governments to be ready with conservation and management plans for polar bears when a worst-case climate change scenario happens.”

Both observational studies and modeling have made clear the effects that climate change has on polar bears in many areas where the bears are found. Previous studies led by Derocher revealed that one very bad ice year could leave hundreds of Hudson Bay polar bears stranded on land for an extended period of time.

“Such an event could erase half of a population in a single year,” Derocher noted.

“The management options for northern communities like Churchill would range from doing nothing, to feeding the bears, moving them somewhere else or euthanizing them,” said Derocher.

The research team makes it clear they are not giving the governments directives, but that they want policy makers and wildlife managers to start planning for the predicted escalation of Arctic warming as well as off-the-charts, worst-case scenarios.

“You´re going to make better decisions if you have time to think about it in advance; it´s a no-brainer,” said Derocher, adding that “consultation with northern residents takes time and the worst time to ask for input is during a crisis.”

The team proposes several options for polar bear management, including what Derocher calls a "wild bear park model" — feeding and releasing the bears when freeze-ups allow the animals to get to their hunting grounds. The cost of such an option, however, could run into the millions and could have ramifications on the bears' long-term behavior.

The team warns that governments should be aware of the fallout from climate change, and that human safety in the North will become an increasing challenge.

“Around the world, polar bears are an iconic symbol, so any tragedy would produce massive attention,” said Derocher. “If the warming trend around Hudson Bay took an upward spike, the population of 900 to 1,000 bears in western Hudson Bay would be on the line, so there has to be a plan.”