Increased Sea Ice Drift Further Endangers the Habitat of Polar Bears

It’s easy to deny climate change from an air-conditioned studio apartment when you can’t feel the evidence of rising temperatures on your own skin. That’s why Paul Nicklen, a renowned conservation photographer, has taken on the responsibility of opening people’s eyes. For over two decades, he has been documenting wildlife and ice loss and in two of the most hostile places on Earth: the Antarctic and the Arctic. And sadly, polar bears are one of the most vulnerable species in the face of climate change.

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As of recently, Nicklen has also shared his experiences with the world. In addition to posting some stark images of the wildlife and environment in the coldest places on Earth, he’s also spoken to NPR about his adventures. The fragile state of the Arctic and the Antarctic is not something we can ignore. Most importantly, climate change is the main driver behind most negative transformations in these areas.

Study Finds Ice Drift Harms Polar Bears

The pictures shared by Nicklen emerged roughly at the same time as a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey. Partnering with the University of Wyoming, the agency found that elevated westward ice drift in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas forces polar bears to put much more effort into walking eastward. It’s almost as if they’re wasting energy running faster and faster on a moving “treadmill” of drifting sea ice.

Dr. George Durner, lead author of the new report and research ecologist with the USGS, stated that the rising rates of sea ice drift aggravate the polar bears’ physiological stress due to minimal foraging opportunities in the ever-warming Arctic. In his own words, the loss of ice and its immediate effects simply add yet “another straw to the camel’s back.”

The findings of the study are based on radio-tracking data collected from collared adult female polar bears in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. This information was paired with sea ice drift data provided by the National Show and Ice Data Center. According to the researchers, the statistics covered more than 77,000 bear locations and their corresponding ice drift values. For further accuracy, the data was collected during two different periods with distinctive sea ice characteristics – 1987-1998 and then 1999-2013.

Hunting for Food

The study also revealed that the normal diet of the polar bears has drastically changed. They must eat one to three more seals each year (a 2-6% increase) in order to make up for the greater cost of living on speeding ice drifts. Meanwhile, a vicious cycle starts. The more the polar bear has to walk to find prey, the more tired it becomes. In the conditions of ice melting due to climate change, these animals find it increasingly difficult to hunt for food.

RELATED: [Timelapse Photos of Melting Glaciers Display Climate Change Effects]

Merav Ben-David, a professor with the UW’s Department of Zoology and Physiology, was surprised by the findings. He explained that such studies do more than just present us with statistics and estimations. They also demonstrate how immeasurably valuable it is to collect long-term uninterrupted data. Thanks to access to the ice data from NSIDC, as well as the international cooperation, this project can once again raise awareness about climate change.

Data shows the urgency to cover longer distances corresponds with dislocation of the ice surface, the “pavement” on which polar bears walk. As a result, the mammals must traverse longer distances in a complex, difficult, and increasingly changing environment. No wonder the species is slowly but surely dropping in numbers.

The study also showed that, during the most recent period of data collection, a solitary adult female polar bears need about as much as 3.2 million kilocalories each year. This represents a significant increase from the early period, about 51,000-107,000 kilocalories more. Also, this number is now 3.5-4 times larger than total energy needs of a fairly active adult human female.

Stories from the Cold Continent

Paul Nicklen, the photographer we talked about at the beginning of this article, often finds himself swimming in freezing waters, following its subjects. It’s not easy being just a camera’s length away from dangerous marine predators. Nicklen has plenty of unbelievable stories, some of which he shared with NPR in a recent interview.

Probably one of the scariest encounters was with a 1,000-pound leopard seal. As the photographer and the subject were face to face, the seal opened her mouth aggressively. He could literally stare down her throat, which is a terrifying position to be in. However, Nicklen explained that he doesn’t want to harass the animals. So if he notices signs of distress or aggressiveness, he pulls back.

RELATED: [Climate Change Accelerates Ocean Warming, Says New Research]

“What you learn about these animals is how communicative they are, how intelligent they are, how social they are, how forgiving they are.”

He also told NPR he had fallen in love with leopard seals after one specimen followed him around for four days. Nicklen recalls that she joined him every time he got in the water, keeping him company throughout his underwater trips. When he’d get ready to return to his sailboat, she would follow him back, too. The female sea leopard had such strong maternal instincts that she would try to feed Nicklen live and dead penguins. How can you not fall in love with such kind animals?

Habitat Loss & Its Consequences

Nicklen also shed some light on the struggles polar bears and other species endure in their natural habitat. He noticed that in the last few years, Svalbard, Norway, has suffered massive ice loss. An area that was once completely covered by sea ice was now severely dry.

“And when there’s no ice that means bears basically do not have that platform to catch seals, and that’s their main food source. They might eat a little bit of seaweed… they might get the odd bird egg or the odd bird, but that’s not giving them any nutritional value.”

Nicklen’s statements correspond with the discoveries of the latest study by the U.S. Geological Survey. The study was published Tuesday, June 6, 2017 in the journal Global Change Biology, shining the spotlight once again on the perils of polar bears and their habitat loss.

Header Image: mrwallpaper.com

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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