No Ice in Sight: Polar Bears Scrabble Onshore to Find Food

Polar bear eating barnacle goose eggs.
Spitsbergen (Svalbard), Norway: Hungry polar bear raids barnacle goose nests. Piles of goose down mark the former nests. (Photograph: Jouke Prop)

On June 4, 1773, English naval officers were dispatched on an expedition to the Arctic. Their goal was to locate a passage from the British Isles to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, on ice floes near Spitsbergen (Svalbard), Norway, they found polar bears. The explorers were the first Europeans to describe the bears as a distinct species.

Fast-forward to June, 2015. If the sailors made their way to Svalbard this year, they’d likely spot polar bears not on sea ice, but wandering along rocky shorelines, nosing around for food.

Desperate for food: a family of polar bears – a mother and two offspring – takes to eating gull eggs and chicks. (Photograph: Jouke Prop)

It begins – and ends – with sea ice

For polar bears, everything begins and ends with ice.

Sea ice provides “rafts” on which the bears can travel, and from which they’re able to hunt for their choice prey, ringed seals.

When sea ice forms in fall, ringed seals, also known as ice seals, cut breathing holes in its surface. They scratch away with sharp flippers, making openings that allow them to haul out on the ice.

Ringed seals raise the next generation in snow caves they fashion atop ice floes. But the caves are dwindling in size and number. Late ice formation in fall, rain-on-snow precipitation in late winter, and early ice break-up in spring are to blame.

In December, 2014, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed to designate some 350,000 square miles of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska as critical habitat for ringed seals. NMFS also listed four ringed seal subspecies as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The critical habitat designation would add an —> Read More