The Polar Bears Might Be Just Fine After the Ice Is Gone

The bears will probably find other things to eat when the seals are gone.

Polar bears have been the unfailing symbol of catastrophic climate change, but new science has put that idea on quickly-melting ice.

Past research predicted a mass die-off of adult male polar bears when warming forces 180 ice-free days on Canada’s Hudson Bay. The animals currently rely on sea ice to access delicious seal meat — their primary source of sustenance.

Of course, the bears would die if they just sat there on the shore, wishing for a seal to launch itself onto the beach. But they’re more resourceful than that.

A study published today in PLoS ONE suggests that polar bears may be able to find enough snow geese, bird eggs, and caribou on land to stave off starvation.

“Polar bears are opportunists and have been documented consuming various types and combinations of land-based food since the earliest natural history records,” said Robert Rockwell with the American Museum of Natural History, one of the study’s authors, in a statement. “Analysis of polar bear scats and first-hand observations have shown us that subadult polar bears, family groups, and even some adult males are already eating plants and animals during the ice-free period.”

The researchers found that, at least hypothetically, there are enough calories available to polar bears on land to keep them fed through the ice-free season. What will happen in reality is still unknown. “The veracity of relying on these land-based resources, however, likely depends on a number of factors including future prey availability, polar bear foraging behavior, energy costs associated with prey procurement and physiological utilization of different macronutrients,” the authors write.

Will climate change be a disaster for the polar bears? It could be that they are more adaptable to new circumstances than we previously gave them credit for. Will it be easy? Definitely not.

The rate and scale of change happening right now on the planet is unprecedented in human history, and the Arctic is bearing the brunt of it. Humans and animals will have to adapt fast — too fast for evolutionary adaptation — or die.

So it’s a good news, bad news kind of thing.