When climate change is breathing down your neck, and the icy habitat you rely on for your survival is melting, where do you go when you are already at the top of the world?

By Mark Jordahl 

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II just released their new report, “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.” While the title doesn’t exactly evoke the excitement of a John Grisham thriller, this report represents the gold standard of current scientific understanding of climate change. Here it is, by the numbers:

  • 270 scientists
  • From 65 countries
  • Reviewed 36,000 scientific studies
  • To compile this 3,675-page report

At the most fundamental level, the understanding that underpins the entire report is that we need to keep the average temperature increase on Earth to 1.5 degrees Celsius or less from pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic consequences. This will require a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 45 percent by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050. We are currently at 1.1 degrees Celsius above, so we don’t have a lot of room to play with, and time is running out.

Antonio Gutierres, the United Nations Secretary-General, called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

A polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba.

© Garrett Fache

What does this mean for polar bear conservation?

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the news isn’t great. According to Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, World Wildlife Fund’s Head of Conservation for the Arctic who was the lead author for the Polar Regions section of the report, “The Arctic is going to warm two to three times as much as the global average over the course of this century. So, when we’re talking about 1.5C degrees globally, we’re talking about 3-5 degrees in the Arctic.”

So what? A few-degree increase doesn’t sound too bad, does it? If you have been on one of Nat Hab’s winter polar bear or northern lights adventures in the subarctic of Churchill, Manitoba, there might have been times you would have been pretty happy about it being a few degrees warmer! So, why does this increase matter for polar bear conservation?

It’s all about Arctic sea ice.

Polar bears hunt almost exclusively on sea ice. While they will occasionally feed on a whale carcass on a beach, they are marine mammals that rely on hunting seals for survival. They generally do not eat from the time they leave the ice due to melt in the spring until the sea ice forms again in the fall or winter. They have evolved for that, but it pushes them to their limit and any increase in the length of their fast threatens their survival.

In Canada’s Hudson Bay, polar bears, on average, spend approximately 6 months per year fasting. In 2021, the late freeze meant they were off the ice for 170 days. Fifty days longer than average. If this trend continues, it will inevitably lead to a drop in polar bear populations.

According to the IPCC report, sea ice cover in the Arctic overall has been diminishing by four percent per decade since the 1970s. Sea ice thickness declined by sixty-five percent between 1975 and 2012. Older ice—those areas that are at least 5 years old—declined from 30% to 2% between 1979 and 2018. Areas of year-round open water in the Arctic have increased enough that the industries of Arctic shipping and tourism have transformed.

These reductions in sea ice will accelerate due to the “albedo effect.” Ice reflects a massive amount of the sun’s heat back into space. Water absorbs heat. As more water is exposed to the sun for more of the year, the Arctic will warm exponentially faster. The IPCC report predicts that summer sea ice will completely disappear within the next century.

The impact will be felt first in a reduction in births. Female polar bears experience delayed implantation. They will mate in the spring but will not become pregnant until the fall depending on whether they have the fat and other nutrient reserves necessary to develop the fetuses (they typically have twins). If they don’t have those reserves, the eggs are rejected, and the world has fewer polar bears.

The next impact will be felt in cub survival. Cubs are born in the den in October or November and spend the next several months gaining 20-30 pounds from the mother’s fat-rich milk. In March or April, they leave the den with their mother and head directly out onto the ice so they can begin learning to hunt and their mother can regain some of the weight she lost in the den. An early melt in the spring means less time to gain weight to make it through the long fast once again.

A polar bear on the edge of Hudson Bay.

© Lianne Thompson

The Arctic Squeeze

Another significant finding in the IPCC report is that half of the living organisms assessed—both flora and fauna—are either moving to higher ground or towards the poles as increasing temperatures, more frequent droughts and pressure from other species that are also moving north change their habitats.

For polar bears in Canada and around the Arctic, this is an even greater threat because they have nowhere else to go. As the north warms, grizzly bears are able to move farther into the Arctic tundra to feed for more of the year. These interlopers from the south have a much broader diet, so they can begin feeding on roots, grubs and nearly anything else that is available as soon as the ground begins to thaw in the spring. And many of their preferred foods are moving north along with them. Polar bears, which have a far more restricted diet, can quickly be outcompeted. Grizzly bears and polar bears are also closely related, and the genetic lines of polar bears are already being diluted by hybrid “prizzlies” or “grolar bears.”

Reductions in Arctic sea ice are also forcing ringed seals—the polar bears’ most important food source—to change their behavior to survive. For the first time in history, they have been seen hauling out on land in Svalbard, Norway. While this might be a sign of a positive adaptation to climate change, it also puts their young at risk of a new suite of land-based predators.

Sunset in Churchill, Manitoba.

© Hollie Galloway

Human communities are getting squeezed, too.

Four million people live across the Arctic, many in small, coastal fishing villages. Hungry bears stalking the beaches waiting longer for the sea ice to form is a recipe for conflict between people and bears. Rising seas are also eating away at those shorelines, in some places by more than 6 feet per year. Communities are being forced to move inland before their homes fall into the ocean. They are less able to hunt and travel across the ice, and traditional lifestyles that have been successful in these harsh environments are being tested.

In the words of the report, “Connection with nature is a defining feature of Arctic identity for indigenous communities because the lands, waters and ice that surround communities evoke a sense of home, freedom and belonging, and are crucial for culture, life and survival.”

We have an opportunity to learn from the vast store of knowledge these indigenous communities have developed over the millennia about Arctic ecosystems. They must be included in any planning and decision-making processes that will impact their homelands.

In Conclusion

It would be tragically cliché and defeatist to say you should go see the polar bears in Canada now before they are gone. Instead, let’s say go now to get inspired to help save them. There is still time, and there is a roadmap.

After years of declining numbers, polar bear conservation efforts around Churchill, Manitoba, have been successful enough that the sub-population is considered stable. It is still possible to see significant numbers of bears on one of Nat Hab’s Classic Polar Bear Adventures, and we truly believe that having a personal encounter with the King of the Arctic can motivate us to make changes in our lives to reduce our personal carbon footprints and pressure corporations and politicians to meet the climate targets laid out in the IPCC report. To learn even more about how to protect the Arctic, and to have your carbon footprint offset for a year, consider joining our Climate Change Departure that dives deeper into these issues.

This is the report that can make a difference. The next one, due out in 5 to 6 years, will be a report card on whether we took this wake-up call seriously. The time to act is now.