Unreported world

Do polar bears no longer need saving?

New study offers ‘glimmer of hope’ for some polar bears – but with caveats

“Save the polar bears” has long been a mantra among the climate-conscious. But a new study has suggested that the Arctic mammals might not need our help quite as much as we once thought.

A team of researchers has discovered a unique population of polar bears who are surviving in southeast Greenland despite a lack of sea ice. They live in a region that is ice-free for more than 250 days a year, mimicking the conditions predicted for the rest of the Arctic by the end of the 21st century. 

The fjords they call home should be “unlivable for polar bears”, said Scientific American, “but the southeastern bears seem to be managing surprisingly well without the sea ice”.

The team’s findings, published in the journal Science, provided “a glimpse into how Greenland’s bears may fare under future climate scenarios”, said Kristin Laidre, a polar scientist at the University of Washington who conducted the study.

Team faced ‘uphill battle’

Dealing with “volatile weather, a harsh coastline, almost no human settlements, and no spots for fuel or food”, Laidre and her team faced an uphill battle in southeast Greenland, said The Atlantic

But they were able to collect enough data, including tissue samples, to find that the newly discovered bears had adapted to dwindling sea ice levels by hunting seals using chunks of freshwater ice broken off from Greenland’s glaciers, rather than sea ice.

“We wanted to survey this region because we didn’t know much about the polar bears in Southeast Greenland, but we never expected to find a new subpopulation living there,” said Laidre. “We knew there were some bears in the area… we just didn’t know how special they were.”

Offers ‘possibility of survival’

The study offers a “possibility that pockets of the species might survive despite rising temperatures”, said BBC News. It also answers one of the “big questions” asked by scientists: where will polar bears be able to “hang on” once the rest of the Arctic becomes uninhabitable?

But, said Laidre in an interview with The Atlantic, this doesn’t mean that polar bears are saved. “Like the Wrangel mammoths, they might outlast others of their kind, but they won’t hold out forever. Perhaps Southeast Greenland is simply the place where the polar-bear endling will live out its species’ final days.”

And although the study does offer a “glimmer of hope” for the future of some polar bears, it’s important to remember that habitats like southeast Greenland are “rare and likely to change with global heating”, said The Guardian

Glaciers are subject to climate change and have been in retreat in recent years, with the ones in southeast Greenland no exception. 

Lack of genetic diversity 

As the bears are so isolated – and have been for “several hundred years” – they face further problems. 

“Occasionally, there’s an immigrant that comes in and adds genetic diversity to the group,” said Laidre. “But because they are so geographically isolated, they don’t have a lot of genetic input from other polar bears from other parts of the Arctic.”

Inbreeding can prove dangerous over time and riddle the bears “with genetic problems”, added The Atlantic. 

They are ‘not thriving’

Although these bears are "living at the edge of what we believe to be physiologically possible”, they “are not thriving”, said study co-author Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Thanks to slow reproduction rates and a small population of just several hundred, as well as glaciers being in retreat pretty much everywhere in Greenland, the long-term survival of this subpopulation of polar bears feels “highly unlikely”, Andrew Derocher, a researcher at the University of Alberta, told The Atlantic. 

With just 26,000 individual polar bears left in the world, the best hope for the species is “strong action to limit human-caused climate change”, said Laidre.

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