How global warming is affecting Canada’s polar bears

Published: June 19, 2018

Polar-bear-on-melting-ice FloridaStock/Shutterstock

Some might consider the appearance of a polar bear at Newfoundland’s annual iceberg festival as an auspicious sign. Others might see it as the grave result of global warming. But for the residents of St. Lunaire-Griquet, part of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, the arrival of a polar bear on an ice floe during the evening of June 10, had most thinking about how to keep their distance.

“They’re wild animals. As beautiful as they are, I would not want to get too close,” Thresa Burden, a tourism and development officer with the town of St. Anthony, told the Globe and Mail. The bear spent some time wandering amongst sheds and along the shoreline, before eventually hopping back into the water and swimming out towards the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s not uncommon for bears to come ashore in the community, Burden told the Globe. But it is strange to see the bear appear so late in the spring.

The appearance of a bear so late in the season immediately brings into question the role global warming is playing on polar bears’ behaviour. But Andrew Derocher, a biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta who studies polar bears, says global warming wouldn’t push bears south, instead it is causing a “northward retraction of the bears.” The bear’s appearance in St. Lunaire-Griquet is more likely a case of it getting “into trouble because [it] followed [its] nose,” he says.

Derocher says the bear probably got lost and separated from the sea ice while heading south to hunt. Many bears migrate south on drifting sea ice later in the season to hunt harp seals — they’re abundant in that area — before hightailing it back north. The harp seal population has grown in recent years, Derocher says, meaning the polar bear population, particularly in the Davis Strait — an area encompassing the northern arm of the Labrador Sea between Greenland and Nunavut—is also remaining healthy.

Although the bear’s sudden southern appearance isn’t explicitly linked to global warming, climate change is having a major effect on polar bears. Sea ice, the bear’s natural habitat, is shrinking quickly. Derocher says there is very little ice around the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland, meaning bears have a long swim back after coming south to hunt, many of them “nowhere near fit enough to survive without sea ice for six months.”

The continued shrinking of sea ice is increasing the distance to polar bears’ hunting spots, making them less accessible. As a result, Derocher says, the bears are retreating further north with the sea ice, both at risk of eventually disappearing.

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