A SMALL GLIMPSE OF HOPE

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Continuous rise of global temperature has had detrimental impacts on world climate and wildlife over the past few years. Polar Regions especially, were and still are affected by global warming more severely than other regions of the world since the Arctic continues to warm at about twice the rate of the rest of the globe.

 From September 2020 through October, the region experienced its seventh-warmest polar year on record and the warmest autumn since 1900. Therefore, the ice fields in this region are melting down fast and would be totally melted down in few decades if the conditions remain the same. While the whole world is already experiencing the consequences, polar bears in the region, in particular, are one of the most affected species by this rapid melting of glacial ice, on which they rely on to hunt, travel, rest, and mate. So, they were, in fact, predicted to be extinct very soon. Nevertheless, a group of researches has discovered a subgroup of polar bears in South-eastern Greenland showing a small glimpse of hope of adaptation to the worsening climatic conditions.

This isolated population of few hundred polar bears inhabiting part of Greenland’s southeast coast on the Denmark Strait has demonstrated behavioural pattern contrasting from the normal behaviour of polar bears. The polar bears have adopted to hunt seals by floating on glacial ice sheets which are not tethered to the shore and thus float. “They survive in fjords that are sea-ice free more than eight months of the year because they have access to glacier – freshwater – ice on which they can hunt. This habitat, meaning glacier ice, is uncommon in most of the Arctic,” says University of Washington polar scientist Kristin Laidre, lead author of the study published in the journal Science. They use this glacier ice to hunt seals through summer,” Laidre said. “They have an alternative hunting platform a lot of bears in the Arctic don’t have.”

Especially, the scientists have noted during the research that these polar bears never stray as far as normal species would do. A female polar bear which was carefully observed has travelled only one fourth of the total distance a normal female polar bear would do for hunting.  Also, a pack of 11 southeast Greenland bears has floated away on pack ice. Stiff currents sent these 11 bears southward — away from home. But in the end, each of the 11 bears has swum ashore and walked back to their home fjord within a month or two. The study identifies this group of polar bears to be the world’s genetically most isolated subgroup which is a result of their topographically encapsulated habitat; jagged mountain peaks and the Greenland Ice Sheet on one side and the open ocean on the other. So, they have developed behavioural patterns that differ from those of regular polar bears.

But in any way this doesn’t assure that the polar bears would happily live in the present climatic conditions because according to the scientists, the polar bears in these regions are not thriving but just existing. Their growth rate as well as the reproduction rate has become very low. Also, the scientists have noticed that these bears are much smaller in size compared to the others. So, we are still not sure how long they would continue to live like that. Therefore it is necessary to take immediate actions to stop global warming and preserve polar bears population.

“Polar bears are in trouble. It is clear that if we can’t slow the rate of global warming that polar bears are on a trajectory to become extinct. The more we can learn about this remarkable species, the better able we will be to help them to survive the next 50 to 100 years.”

By Induwara Athapattu