Greenland polar bears may be able to survive changing climate scenarios


Polar bears have long been the poster species for climate change, but a study suggests they may get along just fine, even in the absence of sea ice.

previously unknown population of polar bears has been found living in south-east Greenland, and rather than hunting seals from sea ice, they make do with hopping on to chunks of freshwater ice that calve off glaciers.

Until now, the remote region had been poorly studied because of its unpredictable weather, jagged mountains and heavy snowfall.

But a seven-year project has found several hundred polar bears living on the freshwater ice floes, suggesting that the species could survive the sea ice melts predicted with global warming.

Kristin Laidre, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington and lead author of the study, said: “The sea ice conditions in south-east Greenland today resemble what’s predicted for north-east Greenland by late this century.

“These bears provide a glimpse into how Greenland’s bears may fare under future climate scenarios.”

The bears only have access to sea ice between February and late May, but for the other two-thirds of the year they hunt seals from chunks of ice breaking off the Greenland Ice Sheet.

The bears were found to be genetically distinct from other species, which researchers believe is because they are hemmed in by the mountains, Denmark Strait, the East Greenland coastal current and Greenland Ice Sheet.

The findings were published in the journal Science.

These bears are “living at the edge of what we believe to be physiologically possible,” said evolutionary molecular biologist and study co-author Beth Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“These bears are not thriving. They reproduce more slowly, they’re smaller in size. But, importantly, they are surviving,” Ms Shapiro added.

Polar bears are particularly imperiled by climate change.

“Loss of Arctic sea ice is still the primary threat to all polar bears. This study does not change that,” Ms Laidre said. (©Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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