Polar Bears and Climate Change

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Polar bear in Hudson Bay, Canada

Polar bears are considered marine mammals due to the fact that they spend the majority of their lives on Arctic ice. In addition to being excellent swimmers, they spend over 50% of their time looking for food, but less than 2% of attempts result in actual capture of prey. In May 2008 they were listed as threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act since the Arctic ice, a habitat essential to their survival, has been melting due to climate change.

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A study conducted in the southern Beaufort Sea, located along the coasts of Alaska and Canada, showed that, due to the lack of Arctic ice, polar bears declined 40% between the years 2001 and 2010, from 1500 to 900 bears. The Arctic ice forms adjacent to land and creates platforms that allow polar bears to hunt seals and easily return to their dens, but during the last couple of years, extended ice surfaces as well as prey have significantly decreased.

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In an expedition that took place in the year 2014 along the coasts of Svalbard in the Arctic of Norway, WWF scientists returned with unfortunate findings: an even thinner ice sheet and very few female polar bears with cubs. With the assistance of a helicopter, researchers gathered information from 53 bears and placed tracking collars with satellite GPS on seven females.

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During the same expedition in Svalbard, the weight of the polar bears was documented and tags were placed on their ears to gather information on their location, external temperature, and light exposure. Researchers also concluded that climate change has been affecting the seals of Svalbard, which are the main source of food for polar bears. Seals are having trouble reproducing due to unfavorable ice conditions.

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WWF counts on a polar bear location program that allows teams of researchers to monitor these animals via satellite to determine their distribution ranges, as well as study changes to their habitats due to Arctic ice decline. However, there are still many unanswered questions regarding their behavior.

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In addition, WWF along with its partners are working with governments directly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as other threats such as potential oil and gas spills in high seas, which could negatively impact key polar bear habitats and Arctic ecosystems overall.