In just a matter of years, scientists warn the entire population of polar bears in the western Hudson Bay could be gone.
“All indications are that this population could collapse in the space of a year or two if conditions got bad enough,” Andrew Derocher, a polar bear scientist at the University of Alberta told The Guardian.
According to the latest Canadian government estimate, this specific population of polar bears has dropped by nearly 10 percent in under a decade. In 1987, estimates counted around 1,200 bears and by 2004, this number shrunk to 935. Now in 2013, Environment Canada says that the population could be as low as 850.
The effects of climate change in the Hudson Bay area have greatly distressed the polar bear population. In fact, the ice-free season in the area has increased by approximately a day every year for the past three decades, accounting for almost a third of the year in 2012. Scientists say that polar bears cannot survive with an ice-free season of more than 160 days.
The ice-free season also means a longer starvation period. It’s not uncommon to see polar bears with visible backbones and shoulder blades and noticeably thinner builds. In the Hudson Bay today, female polar bears are almost 90 pounds slimmer than they were in the early 1980s, which affects how many cubs they give birth to. Newborn cubs also tend to be skinnier, decreasing their rate of survival.
Ian Stirling, a wildlife biologist at the University of Alberta, told The Guardian the current situation is beyond dire—it’s unavoidable at this rate.
“There is no way a population can remain stable if the young aren’t surviving. If the climate continues to warm, slow and steadily, they are on the way out.”
The Canadian government has been confronted with criticism from the international community for its stance on climate change. Despite polar bears being recognized as a threatened species, many critics say the federal government does not currently have an effective plan for protecting them. Additionally, critics say the government should limit the polar bear hunt by indigenous groups.
One thing all Canadians can likely agree on: it’s of the utmost important to protect the Canadian icon from possible extinction.