The bad news just keeps rolling in for polar bears. Probably one of the Earth’s most beloved creatures, the Alaskan apex predator may be losing the fight against climate change, according to a recent study from the United States Geological Survey.
As thinning ice shelves speed the westward shifting of ice in Alaskan waters, polar bears are forced to increase how much they walk and eat or risk being swept off to Russia if they can’t keep up — like a treadmill that is slowly picking up speed.
Just to stay put, in the same region, with the same general community, requires a greater outlay of energy that polar bears in turn need to recoup through additional feeding. The USGS study estimated that polar bears are 9 to 13 percent more active, consuming between 2 and 7 percent more energy — or as they put 1 to 3 more seals — to maintain the same habitat as in previous years.
Polar bears are almost entirely reliant on seals for their diet, and with thinning populations of the vital food source already playing a major role in the reason these predators are forced to roam further, it’s hardly a good time to be hungrier than ever. Climate change and sea-ice loss have led to increased threats for seal populations, to the extent that some advocates are calling on the government to boost protections.
The new research demonstrates how easily disruptions in the natural order can have chain-effects that ripple across species. Warmer sea temperatures melt ice, forcing polar bears to walk further and faster, and to eat more seals, which are already threatened because of the warmer sea temperatures that started the whole process, so bears are walking even further to find fewer seals!
As the world’s leaders undertake the world’s first serious global commitment to confront climate change in Paris, it’s worth remembering that the problem must be serious if even some of the toughest, meanest animals on Earth need our help.