A recent survey found that populations of polar bears in the western Canadian Arctic, including the western section of Hudson Bay, are rapidly declining. Specifically, the populations of female bears and young bears have dropped drastically.
Each year for the past five years, scientists have flown over the area where the town of Churchill is located—a popular tourist attraction known as the “polar bear capital of the world”—in an effort to estimate the number of bears and determine population trends.
Earlier this month, researchers reported they had seen 194 bears during their most recent survey from late August to early September 2021. They estimated a total bear population of 618 in comparison to 842 five years earlier.
“Comparison to aerial [survey] estimates from 2011 and 2016 suggests that the WH (Western Hudson Bay population) may be decreasing in abundance,” the study said. It also “revealed significant declines in the abundance of adult female and subadult bears [cubs] between 2011 and 2021.”
“The observed declines are consistent with long-standing predictions regarding the demographic effects of climate change on polar bears,” researchers said.
Researchers pointed to hunting and bear migration to new areas as probable causes of the population drop among other things.
Polar bears are disappearing fast from the western part of Hudson Bay, on the southern tip of the Canadian Arctic pic.twitter.com/rEuPfRo2KL
— Young Journalist (@AbdullahNuriya) December 24, 2022
Sea-ice habitat disappearing
With the Arctic warming up to four times faster than the rest of the globe, the bears’ sea-ice home is disappearing at an alarming rate.
There has been a gradual reduction in the thickness of the sea ice in the region, which means it now freezes later in the autumn and melts earlier in the spring. However, bears need the ice to travel around and hunt for seals.
According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, about half of the summertime ice cover in the bay has been lost since the 1980s.
Given that 1,200 polar bears roamed the western shores of Hudson Bay in the 1980s, a paper published two years ago in the journal Nature Climate Change warned that this trend might lead to the near extinction of the animals.
How many polar bears are left worldwide?
It is estimated that between twenty-two and thirty-one thousand polar bears remain in the wild today. About three hundred polar bears are kept in zoos and other facilities. Hence, these animals are not included in wildlife population estimates.
While estimations of polar bear populations are still not low enough for the species to be considered ‘endangered,’ they are nevertheless alarmingly low. In terms of population stability, polar bears are classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). This means that there is always a risk of extinction.
For decades, this has been a major point of concern for conservationists, and the polar bear species has been designated as a “poster child for climate change.” Rising sea levels, which have a direct impact on these animals, are also a consequence of melting ice caps.
This causes the polar bear’s habitat to shrink in area and pushes the bears further inland, where they may come into contact with humans and be threatened. Furthermore, pollution is a major threat to polar bears as well. Surprisingly, the Arctic contains a significant amount of harmful chemicals and other contaminants.
Arctic animals at the bottom of the food chain are ingesting toxins, metals, and plastics deposited there by air and ocean currents. These contaminants are ingested by animals and then passed up the food chain.
Pollutants are quite potent by the time they are consumed by polar bears, and by the time they’re digested, the bears have already been severely impacted health-wise.