This holiday, many among us will be hoping for a white Christmas, despite the lack of snow that has become the norm in Vancouver and the later snowfalls that have become the norm further east. Older generations remember most vividly the days when the climate was colder and snow was more frequent.
As we celebrate the holidays and send cards depicting cute polar bears wearing Santa hats, it is a good time to remember the reality of polar bears and other species living at the poles.
Their experience of climate change is far more pronounced than is ours. While we notice the lack of snow in our cities, we do not see the dramatic change going on in the arctic, so it can be easy to forget how quickly sea ice is melting there.
Polar bears have evolved to spend the entire year on sea ice and hunt seals there. When faced with either drowning or migration to shore, most polar bears have wisely chosen migration to shore; however recent research conducted in the southern Beaufort Sea shows that their inability to hunt in their usual habitat, sea ice, is having a serious affect on their nourishment and consequently on their survival and reproduction. Since they cannot hunt for seals from land, the bears are forced to scavenge and eat whatever washes up on shore, but this is not providing them with sufficient nutrition.
According to this study, polar bears’ survival begins to visibly decline in years with over 127 ice-free days. When ice-free days increase, polar bear survival further decreases. While polar bears have been studied in more detail than most other
Arctic species, it is likely that the extreme effects of climate change at the poles are also threatening other animals living in this vulnerable region.
Very little of Canada’s arctic is protected, so while we snuggle up for the holidays and cross our fingers for snow, it may be time to consider making either polar bears or their habitats a higher conservation priority. Protecting polar bears would likely be an efficient way to protect their entire ecosystems and the other species within them.