Polar Bears are Vulnerable to Loss of Sea Ice

By Rachael Ragen

Figure 1

Polar Bear, https://sealevel.nasa.gov/ system/news_items/main_images/ 74_polarbear768.jpeg

Polar bears are currently facing a major problem: declining sea ice. As greenhouse gases continue to increase due to anthropogenic factors causing temperatures to rise and ice to melt. Since polar bears rely on sea ice as they search for prey, the decline in sea ice makes hunting much more difficult. The current population of polar bears is estimated to be 26,000 with 19 subpopulations in 4 ecoregions (Figure 2). It is very difficult to properly assess each subpopulation of polar bears as they live in extreme environments. Therefore, no global assessment has been done and the status of some subpopulations is unknown. The study by Regehr et al. aimed to look at the effect of sea ice decline on polar bears by determining the generation length, forming a standardized sea ice metric, and then using statistical models and computer simulations.

Figure 2

Map of Ecoregions, Regehr et al.

In order to determine the generation length, the authors looked at the age of female polar bears with a cub and found the average to be 11.5 to 13.6 years. Live capture data was used to determine these numbers. The upper level is used to account for variations in generation length.

A sea ice metric was determined using satellite data from 1979 to 2014. This data was used to establish the carrying capacity, which is the maximum amount of organisms the habitat can support, for the polar bears. Then the value found for K (carrying capacity) was used in linear models. This analysis generated predicted future values of ice as well, as the effect these values had on subpopulations. The ice decline was shown to affect all subpopulations.

The statistical models and computer simulations looked at the relationship between polar bear populations and sea ice over three generations using three different methods. First they assumed that changes in sea ice are directly proportional to changes in subpopulation abundance. This method was useful for populations with limited data. Second they looked at a linear relationship between ice and subpopulation abundance for subpopulations, although data was only available for seven of the nineteen. There was not shown to be a significant change due to variations in the status subpopulations as well as uncertainty in estimates of abundance. Lastly they again looked at a linear relationship between ice and population but for each of the four ecoregions. Some ecoregions showed a significant change, whereas others did not, showing that dynamics and biological productivity varies between subpopulations.

Figure 3

Table of data found, Regehr et al.

This study looked at the IUCN Red List’s guidelines for risk tolerance. The culmination of these studies showed that the first generation’s mean global population size was to decrease by 30%, the second by 4%, and the third by 43% (Table 1). Since there was shown to be a high risk of the population decreasing by 30% and a low chance of the population decreasing by 50% (Table 1), polar bears are classified as vulnerable.

Climate Change to Cause Polar Bear Population Declines

By Laura Vander Meiden, SRC Intern

Over the next 35-40 years polar bear populations have the potential to decrease by more than 30% according to an assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The report cites climate change and the resulting loss of sea ice as the cause of this probable decline.

Photo by Ansgar Walk vie Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Ansgar Walk vie Wikimedia Commons.


Polar bears are specifically built to survive the harsh conditions of the arctic. Their adaptations include two types of insulating fur, a deep layer of fat to keep warm while in the water, bumps called papillae on the bottom of their feet for grip on ice, and feeding behaviors designed for living on the ice. Ironically it is these adaptations that make polar bears most vulnerable as the climate changes.

Scientist’s primary concern is the effect melting sea ice has on the eating habits of the bears. Though polar bears have been seen to opportunistically feed on a variety of organisms, their primary source of food is ring seals which live on the edge of the ice. The seals have a very high calorie content, particularly in their blubber, which is necessary for the polar bear’s frigid lifestyle. This allows the bears to build up large fat reserves which are critical as the bears can only hunt seals when there is ice. When seasonal ice melts in the summer, the bears typically must fast, living off their fat reserves, until the ice returns in the winter.

As climate change continues the ice will melt more quickly each summer and take a much longer time to return each winter. This extends the length of time polar bears must fast, resulting in higher chances of starvation. Melting ice and the subsequent reduced access to food can also lead to an overall decrease in body condition, reduced survival rates of cubs, loss of denning habitat and increased drowning as the bears attempt to swim between ice floes.

Polar bears are found on four different sea ice regions. The populations found in the region where ice is the most seasonal are at present in the most danger from climate change. Also vulnerable are populations in the divergent ice region where ice forms along the shore, but is not always connected to pack ice further out to sea. Safest are populations in the region where convergent ice connects the bears to pack ice and the archipelago region where ice remains year round. The latter region is expected to be the final refuge of the bears, but unless carbon dioxide emissions are reduced even this ice will be melted in 100 years.

Of 19 subpopulations 3 are declining, 6 are stable, 1 is increasing, and 9 have insufficient data to make a determination. Map via Norwegian Polar Institute.

Of 19 subpopulations 3 are declining, 6 are stable, 1 is increasing, and 9 have insufficient data to make a determination. Map via Norwegian Polar Institute.

While the situation for the polar bears appears dire, scientists have not completely lost hope. If significant reductions are made in greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of time before the sea ice melts could be extended. However scientists warn that action must be taken soon, since once a tipping point is reached sea ice will decrease rapidly and no amount of emission reduction will be able to stop the ice from melting.