Polar bears are at risk of starving due to extended periods without ice in the Arctic.

Polar bears in Canada’s Hudson Bay face the risk of starvation due to longer periods without Arctic Sea ice caused by the climate crisis, even though they are willing to broaden their diets.

During colder months, polar bears depend on the ice that spans the ocean surface in the Arctic to access their main prey, such as fatty ringed and bearded seals.

In the warmer months, when the sea ice retreats, polar bears are expected to conserve energy and enter a state similar to hibernation.

However, human-induced climate change is prolonging the ice-free period in some Arctic regions, which are warming at a rate of two to four times faster than the global average. As a result, polar bears are spending more time on land.

Recent research conducted on 20 polar bears in Hudson Bay indicates that even without sea ice, polar bears still attempt to find food.

“Polar bears are resourceful and inventive. They will explore the landscape in search of ways to survive and find food resources to meet their energy needs if they are motivated,” explained Anthony Pagano, a research wildlife biologist with the US Geological Survey and the lead author of the study.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, utilized video camera GPS collars to track the polar bears over three-week periods throughout three years in western Hudson Bay. The ice-free period in this region has increased by three weeks from 1979 to 2015, meaning that in the past decade, bears were on land for around 130 days.

The researchers discovered that out of the 20 bears, two bears rested and reduced their total energy expenditure to levels comparable to hibernation, while the remaining 18 bears remained active.

The study revealed that these active bears might have been compelled to continue searching for food. Some individual bears were observed consuming various food items such as grasses, berries, a gull, a rodent, and a seal carcass.

Additionally, three bears embarked on long swims, with one covering a total distance of 175km. Other bears spent time playing together or chewing on caribou antlers, which the researchers likened to how dogs chew bones.

However, the bears’ attempts to find nourishment on land did not provide them with enough calories to match their usual marine mammal prey.

Nineteen out of the 20 polar bears studied lost weight during this period, losing an amount of weight consistent with a fasting period.

Consequently, the longer polar bears remain on land, the higher their risk of starvation becomes.

“These findings strongly support the existing body of research and serve as further evidence of the urgent need for action,” stated Melanie Lancaster, a senior Arctic species specialist for the World Wildlife Fund who is not associated with the study.

The world’s remaining 25,000 polar bears in the wild are primarily endangered by the climate crisis.

Anthony Pagano suggested that limiting greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming, and adhering to the Paris Climate Agreement’s target of limiting global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels could help preserve polar bear populations.

However, global temperatures are already at 1.2°C and continue to rise while sea ice diminishes.

John Whiteman, the chief research scientist at Polar Bears International, who was not involved in the study, emphasized the significance of this research as it directly measures the polar bears’ energy expenditure during ice-free periods.

“As the ice disappears, so do the polar bears. The only solution is to halt ice loss,” he stated.

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