Big Arctic Melt Leads Polar Bears on Deadly Journey

by Annie Shao, age 17

In 2005, aerial surveys conducted by the Mineral Management Service revealed four dead polar bears in open Arctic waters. Alongside them were ten swimming bears, struggling to reach land.

Scenes like this are no longer a rare occurrence. The U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska recently charted the journey of a female polar bear who swam nonstop for nine consecutive days. During this time, she covered 426 miles in the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska until she reached an offshore ice floe.

During this long swim, she lost 22 percent of her body weight. Tragically, her year-old cub did not survive the journey.   

The grueling voyages  of these bears, and their unfortunate deaths, are examples of the effect of the world’s diminishing levels of sea ice. Polar bears depend on sea ice to travel, and also to find food: their main prey, ringed seals, dwell near sea ice. Due to fluctuations in global temperature, much of the sea ice polar bears rely on has melted, forcing polar bears to swim longer distances to find land and food.   

The fact that polar bears are swimming such lengths indicates a serious problem. According to many studies, two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, or the equivalent of Alaska’s entire polar bear population, may go extinct in the next 40 years due to receding sea ice.    

Last November, the Obama Administration set aside 18,700 square miles of coastline as habitat for polar bears. However, many environmentalist groups believe this will not enough to help the bears. And yet, the federal government does not plan to take immediate steps to further help the bears. Protecting polar bears is very expensive. Because polar bears are only considered threatened –not endangered— they are not a top priority of the government.

As a result, environmental groups, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have file lawsuits against the federal government. They argue that the federal government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions throughout the U.S. in order to protect the bears. U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan has said in previous opinions that the government under-values the importance of the bears.    

Experts say that if sea ice continues to melt, the chances of survival for a polar bear will continue to decrease. The decline of polar bear populations will also affect other species; all living things are interconnected in an ecosystem. Human intervention might be one way to help this important indicator species survive a changing climate.

[Sources: Los Angeles Times; Wisconsin State Journal]