According to estimates, there are 22,000 to 31,000 polar bears in the world. 1 19 subpopulations of these bears exist in the Arctic, some with fewer than 200 members and others with more than 2,000.
Though their numbers are fast declining, polar bears are not actually considered to be endangered. Nevertheless, they serve as a global emblem of the climate problem. You might be surprised by how well-conserved they are. Find out more about the risks that polar bear populations face, as well as what may be done to prevent extinction.
Polar Bears: Are They Threatened?
On the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, polar bears are classified as “vulnerable,” a classification that was first given to them in 1982 and was confirmed by the most recent assessment in 2015.
The five polar bear nations—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the U.S.—signed the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, a multilateral agreement, in 1973, to protect them. Any unrestricted polar bear hunting, including hunting with aircraft or big motor vehicles, is prohibited by this agreement. In order to protect the ecosystems that support polar bears, it requires member states to take the necessary steps.
Even though they are not officially listed as being endangered, the United States government has protected them since 2008 under the Endangered Species Act and has listed them as threatened across their entire range.
Though these bears may face extinction-level risks in some areas, it’s crucial to remember that some populations have recovered from overhunting in recent years, which has led some to assert that polar bears are really flourishing.
One of them was late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who asserted in 2018 that “there are now three times as many polar bears in the Arctic than there were in the 1970s,” a claim that has resurfaced on occasion since. The IUCN states that it’s unclear in which direction the overall trend of polar bear numbers is moving. More subpopulations are declining than are increasing, according to statistics from the World Wildlife Fund 2019. It appears that the main subpopulations are steady.
The Data’s Limitations
There is scant proof that polar bear populations are doing well overall, despite some populations’ optimistic recoveries. That’s in part because there isn’t enough extensive data on polar bears, particularly in the northernmost areas.
Fewer than 5,000 polar bears were thought to exist in the 1960s, according to those who doubt their current situation, but conservationists strongly dispute this estimate.
The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) estimates that at least three of the 19 subpopulations of polar bears are probably in decline, but there isn’t enough data on nine of them. For the three declining populations, there isn’t even enough information to make an estimation.
Many polar bear populations may be in danger, according to a growing body of research, even though the details of their situation are less clear than the general picture of climate change itself.
How Is The Polar Bear Population Being Affected By Climate Change?
Think about what polar bears consume and how they obtain their food to comprehend why climate change poses a threat to polar bear populations. A keystone species in their Arctic surroundings, polar bears are apex predators, and seals are by far their favorite meal. Because they contain more fat than other seal species, they particularly target ringed and bearded seals.
The majority of their time is spent hunting by polar bears, who usually pursue seals from the sea ice and ambush them when they surface to breathe. Even if only a few of their hunts are successful, the effort is usually worth it for such a rich feast. They frequently travel great distances and wait for hours or days for a single seal.
Despite their superb swimming abilities, polar bears—which are considered marine mammals—cannot compete with seals in the ocean. Since sea ice is essential to their hunting method, it is already disappearing as a result of Arctic warming, which is currently occurring at a rate that is about twice as fast as the rest of the earth.
The typical late-summer low of Arctic sea ice now shrinks by 13% per ten years, according to the NOAA, despite the fact that it naturally swells and wanes with the seasons.
The oldest Arctic sea ice, which has been solidly frozen for at least four years and is, therefore, more robust than fresher, thinner ice, is already rapidly thinning. When compared to 1985, when it made up roughly 16 percent of the entire ice pack, it now makes up less than 1 percent, a reduction of 95% in just 33 years.
Since records have been kept, the Arctic sea ice extent in 2020 was second-lowest.
6 Several factors make this drop concerning: By reflecting solar heat and affecting ocean currents, Arctic sea ice provides vital services for the globe. With decreasing sea ice, polar bears have fewer opportunities to catch seals, making it even more crucial for them.
Sea ice loss appears to be harming certain bears more than others, and the impacts of climate change differ depending on where they occur. Polar Bears International (PBI) indicates that changes in polar bear physical condition, survival, and abundance have been connected to sea ice conditions.
For example, the number of polar bears in western Hudson Bay peaked at 1,200 in the 1980s but has since declined to 842. PBI reports that bear populations in Southern Hudson Bay have decreased by 17% since 2012 and that a longer ice-free season is also associated with better body conditions.
The majority of other subpopulations are either thought to be stable or do not have enough information, although many will undoubtedly have severe difficulties as a result of the melting sea ice in their habitats. Although some people may be able to adapt, their options will probably be few. Even if they are able to take advantage of fresh food supplies on land, they could come into confrontation with other locals like brown bears and people or compete with them.
Because of their modest reproduction rate and lengthy generational gaps, polar bears are slow to adapt. Given the rate at which the present climate is changing—which is already occurring too quickly for many species to keep up with—that is not encouraging.
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