Sea ice loss led to skinnier polar bears and fewer cubs

A polar bear in Baffin Bay, West Greenland in 2012 seen from the air. (Credit: Kristin Laidre/U. Washington)

Due to reduced sea ice, polar bears in Baffin Bay are getting thinner, having fewer babies, and spending more time on land than they did in the 1990s, new research shows.

The new study in Ecological Applications includes satellite tracking and visual monitoring of polar bears in the 1990s compared with more recent years.

“Climate-induced changes in the Arctic are clearly affecting polar bears,” says lead author Kristin Laidre, an associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington. “They are an icon of climate change, but they’re also an early indicator of climate change because they are so dependent on sea ice.”

The international research team focused on a subpopulation of polar bears around Baffin Bay, the large expanse of ocean between northeastern Canada and Greenland. The team tracked adult female polar bears’ movements and assessed litter sizes and the general health of this subpopulation between the 1990s and the period from 2009 to 2015.

The map from the 1990s shows white ice stretching over the entirety of Baffin Bay while the more recent map on the right shows no ice that spans the bay
The study compared the movements of adult female polar bears during two time periods. In the 1990s (left), sea ice in mid-July still spanned Baffin Bay, providing polar bears with a large area to hunt and travel. In more recent summers (right), Baffin Bay was mostly open water in mid-July, and polar bears were stuck closer to shore. (Credit: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory/National Snow & Ice Data Center)

Fewer days on ice

Polar bears’ movements generally follow the annual growth and retreat of sea ice. In early fall, when sea ice is at its minimum, the bears end up on Baffin Island, on the west side of the bay. They wait on land until winter when they can venture out again onto the sea ice.

When ice covers Baffin Bay, the bears use the solid surface as a platform for hunting seals, their preferred prey, to travel, and even to create snow dens for their young.

“These bears inhabit a seasonal ice zone, meaning the sea ice clears out completely in summer and it’s open water,” Laidre says. “Bears in this area give us a good basis for understanding the implications of sea ice loss.”

Satellite tags that tracked the bears’ movements show that polar bears spent an average of 30 more days on land in recent years compared to in the 1990s.

The map on the left shows a wider range of polar bear movement over the bay than the more recent map on the right
The authors compared the movements of 43 adult female polar bears with tags that recorded their positions from 1991 to 1997 (left) with those of 38 adult females tracked from 2009 to 2015 (right). With less sea ice, the bears’ movements are restricted to a smaller area and they spend more time close to shore, especially in Greenland. (Credit: Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory/Kristin Laidre, U. Washington)

The average in the 1990s was 60 days, generally between late August and mid-October, compared with 90 days spent on land in the 2000s. That’s because Baffin Bay sea ice retreats earlier in the summer and the edge is closer to shore, with more recent summers having more open water.

“When the bears are on land, they don’t hunt seals and instead rely on fat stores,” Laidre says. “They have the ability to fast for extended periods, but over time they get thinner.”

Polar bear litters

To assess the females’ health, the researchers quantified the condition of bears looking at their level of fatness after sedating them, or inspecting them visually from the air. Researchers classify fatness on a scale of 1 to 5.

The results showed the bears’ body condition was linked with sea ice availability in the current and previous year—following years with more open water, the polar bears were thinner.

“Only human action on climate change can do anything to turn this around.”

Body condition and sea ice availability also affected how many cubs mothers had in a litter. The researchers found larger litter sizes when the mothers were in a good body condition and when spring breakup occurred later in the year—meaning bears had more time on the sea ice in spring to find food.

The researchers also used mathematical models to forecast the future of the Baffin Bay polar bears. The models took into account the relationship between sea ice availability and the bears’ body fat and variable litter sizes.

The normal litter size may decrease within the next three polar bear generations, they say, mainly due to a projected continuing sea ice decline during that 37-year period.

“We show that two-cub litters—usually the norm for a healthy adult female—are likely to disappear in Baffin Bay in the next few decades if sea ice loss continues,” Laidre says. “This has not been documented before.”

Human action needed

Laidre studies how climate change affects polar bears and other marine mammals in the Arctic. She led a 2016 study showing that polar bears across the Arctic have less access to sea ice than they did 40 years ago, meaning less access to their main food source and their preferred den sites.

The new study uses direct observations to link the loss of sea ice to the bears’ health and reproductive success.

“This work just adds to the growing body of evidence that loss of sea ice has serious, long-term conservation concerns for this species,” Laidre says. “Only human action on climate change can do anything to turn this around.”

Additional coauthors are from the Government of Nunavut in Canada, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, the Natural History Museum in Norway, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the University of Washington. NASA and the governments of Nunavut, Canada, Greenland, Denmark, and the US funded the work.

Source: University of Washington