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Canada’s polar bear population facing worst-case scenario

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An alarming new study brings more bad news for Canada’s polar bear population.

According to the study published in PLOS One, if the earth continues to heat up at the current pace, the Canadian Arctic islands—the frozen home to 25 percent of the world’s polar bears—could be ice-free for two to five months each year.

These projections mean that polar bears may face starvation and reproductive failure across the entire archipelago in less than 100 years.

To determine this, the researchers used sea ice projections for the Canadian Arctic Archipelago from 2006 to 2100.

“We predict that nearly one-tenth of the world’s polar bear habitat, as much as one-quarter of their global population, may undergo significant habitat loss under business as usual climate projections,” writes Stephen Hamilton of the University of Alberta, one of the study’s authors, in a press release.

Along with a loss of maximum ice cover, in the future there will also be a decline in older, thicker multi-year ice. The study notes that polar bears “rely on sea ice as a platform for hunting, migration, and mating, but are forced to move to land in regions where sea ice does not seasonally persist.” The habitat of the ringed seal, the polar bear’s main food source, is also at risk at the current pace of climate change.

And although polar bears are well adapted to surviving prolonged periods without food, they lose body mass while fasting. In some populations, average body mass is already on the decline.

By 2070, more than 80 percent of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago might experience ice-free conditions in July, forcing pregnant females to retreat to land early, negatively effecting the number of successful births.

“I would argue that right now, we are pretty much on the worst case scenario trajectory to climate change,” Andrew Derocher, another author of the study, told the Toronto Star.

Derocher says that the polar bear population in some areas is “quite healthy and robust” but in other regions, there are already concerns.

Despite the bleak outlook, the study notes that greenhouse mitigation and geo-engineering strategies could limit some of the ice loss in the Hudson By and peripheral Arctic seas.

“The best indications are that mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions will slow down the rate of sea ice loss, which will mean that polar bears will be able to maintain their habitat likely beyond the scope of our model,” Hamilton told the Star.