Back in March of this year, we covered polar bears and their incredible adaptations for surviving in the harsh Arctic environment. We learned about a female polar bear that, in 2011, swam 426 miles over nine straight days (which is equivalent to the distance between Washington, D.C., and Boston). Far from a leisurely float, her journey through the Beaufort Sea was indicative of how far mother bears are now having to swim to reach land to hunt, due to retreating sea ice. Unfortunately, her young cub didn’t survive the swim, and she herself lost 22% of her body weight by the time she reached land.
Polar bears never used to have to swim as far as they do today, so what is to blame? As you may have guessed, signs point to human-caused climate change.
Despite this sobering trend, we have good news to share—at least for a particular subset of polar bears. Despite global warming melting away the Arctic sea ice that is so vital to polar bear hunting behavior, there is a small population of Greenland polar bears that live and hunt on the glacial ice of the country’s fjords.
According to Nasa’s Earth Science News Team, “In Southeast Greenland, researchers found that bears survive for most of the year in fjords by relying on ice melanges, a mix of sea ice and pieces of glacial ice that is carved off of marine-terminating glaciers. This group of polar bears has been isolated for several hundred years from their Arctic counterparts and are genetically distinct.”
Satellite images from NASA’s Earth Observatory have revealed that these southeast Greenland polar bears have different behaviors than those in northeast Greenland. Those in the southeast move in a more limited space inside their home fjords and other fjords nearby, whereas the bears in the northeast must travel extensively to find sufficient sea ice on which to hunt.
Scientists and researchers have known for some time that there were polar bears living in southeast Greenland, but, says Kristin Laidre, a polar scientist at the University of Washington, “We just didn’t know how special they were.” These few hundred bears were seen hunting year-round where Greenland glaciers and icy fjords empty into the North Atlantic Ocean. It is believed the bears, which are smaller than their northern cousins, have lived in this area for several hundred years. Within this group, adult females weigh up to 400 pounds, where in other polar bear habitats, adults can top out at 560 pounds.
This resourceful population is unable to access sea ice for two-thirds of the year. Instead, they use freshwater ice slabs that break off the Greenland Ice Sheet and coastal glaciers as hunting ground. They also move from fjord to fjord across inland ice and mountains. This genetically distinct polar bear population uses these inventive strategies to help them survive despite global warming, but it won’t be a fix that will work forever. The glacier ice droppings upon which the bears rely don’t occur in many places—certainly not enough habitat for large polar bear populations. It is harder to mate in the harsh polar environment in which they live, and, as a result, the number of cubs is low compared to other regions.
Why Do Polar Bears Need Sea Ice?
Wherever they live in the Arctic—be it Greenland, Alaska or Churchill, Canada – polar bears depend on the sea ice for hunting the rich population of seals that resides there. The ice extends and expands in the winter and spring and shrinks in the summer; the lowest point is in September. This important sea-ice habitat allows polar bears to build up their fat stores for the warmer months, as well as rest, mate and raise cubs. They cannot survive on the small birds and plants available on land. The steadily retreating sea ice is forcing the bears to make more dangerous, long-distance swims to get there, like the mama bear we mentioned.
According to World Wildlife Fund, “As [the polar bears’] sea ice habitat recedes earlier in the spring and forms later in the fall, polar bears are increasingly spending longer periods on land, where they are often attracted to areas where humans live.” And as we know too well, human-wildlife conflict never ends well for the latter.
Polar Bears Under Pressure
There are an estimated 26,000 polar bears remaining on Earth, with 19 distinct population groups. These are found spread throughout the Arctic regions of Canada, Russia, Alaska, Greenland and Norway. Despite the southeast Greenland population’s adaptations, polar bears in all Arctic destinations are facing extinction (they’re currently on the U.S. government’s “threatened” species list) if we do not halt climate change.
According to an article published in The Wall Street Journal in June 2022: “NASA satellite observations show summer sea ice disappearing at a rate of 13% per decade. That has led some researchers to express fears that the animals might be headed for extinction—perhaps as soon as the end of the century if climate change continues at its current pace, according to research published in 2020 in the journal Nature Climate Change.”
So, how can we as conservation-minded, wildlife-loving individuals help ward off the retreat of sea ice and help save the polar bears? While there are myriad answers and countless challenges to the issue, you can start by traveling with an eco-conscious, nature-first company like Nat Hab Adventures to see polar bears in their natural environment.
Travel for Change
When you travel with Nat Hab to Base Camp Greenland near the edge of the Greenland ice sheet, you’ll be immersed in one of the most isolated places on Earth. Nothing compares to East Greenland for an epic Arctic adventure on the front lines of a rapidly changing climate. On Zodiac excursions, navigate around iceberg floes in fantastical shapes, some as huge as buildings, as you search for seals, whales and—occasionally—a polar bear or two onshore. Trek on mountainsides and near glaciers that tumble down from the Greenland ice sheet, which is second in size only to Antarctic and stretches more than 1,500 miles from north to south.
While we this trip doesn’t take us to visit the southeast Greenland polar bears who have found a way to adapt to a warming climate, this eye-opening moment on the ice sheet puts into stark reality the crucial role it plays in regulating Earth’s climate and how it is rapidly being affected by a warming climate.
A departure like Nat Hab’s Premier Polar Bear Adventure takes you to the world’s greatest concentration of these mighty mammals, those of the Hudson Bay and Churchill region in Canada. From mid-October through November, the bears gather here while they wait for the water to freeze before hunting season. We travel in the smallest groups available with expert naturalist guides who understand the fragility of the habitat and the bear population and travel with an eye toward leaving the destination better than we found it.
Stand on the outdoor platform of our Polar Rover, watching as a huge polar bear ambles toward you, silhouetted against the horizon. Other times, a bear may wander directly below us; from your safely elevated perch you can watch as the shaggy, cream-colored giant stops, sniffs and turns its face our way.
It is in these delightful, wondrous moments that we vow to do all we can to ensure that these bears—and all endangered wildlife—are able to survive and thrive. Not only are you getting a chance to see polar bears in their (rapidly shrinking) natural habitats, but conservation travel helps these special creatures. Our mission is conservation through exploration, with a goal to protect nature. With us, you’re helping inspire other travelers, supporting local communities and sustaining the world’s wild places for people and wildlife alike. Our small groups ensure personal, close-up wildlife encounters that have a low impact on the planet’s most fragile ecosystems, particularly in places that are already threatened—like the Arctic regions.
What’s more, when you travel to see polar bears in Churchill or Greenland with Natural Habitat Adventures, you’re also supporting the work of our conservation travel partner, World Wildlife Fund. You become an integral force for change in addressing the planet’s most pressing conservation challenges—in this case, the retreating sea ice and the survival of one of our world’s most impressive creatures, the kings of the Arctic.