Can polar bears survive without Arctic ice? Scientists think so!

Can polar bears survive without Arctic ice? Scientists think so!

Polar bears face an existential threat from the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice, which they rely on as platforms to hunt seals.

In a new study, scientists have identified an isolated subpopulation of polar bears in Southeast Greenland that make use of freshwater ice pouring into the ocean from the region's glaciers, suggesting this particular habitat is less susceptible than others to climate change. Their findings, described in the journal Science on Thursday, open up the tantalizing possibility that at least some pockets of the species might be able to survive further into this century when Arctic sea ice is expected to disappear completely during the summer months.

Polar bears face an existential threat from the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice, which they rely on as platforms to hunt seals. "One of the big questions is where in the Arctic will polar bears be able to hang on, what we call 'persist,'" first author Kristin Laidre, a polar scientist at the University of Washington and Greenland Institute of Natural Resources says.

"I think that bears in a place like this can teach us a lot about where those places might be," she adds.

Laidre and colleagues first spent two years interviewing Inuit subsistence hunters who provided input and ecological knowledge, including harvest samples for analysis. They then began their fieldwork, which lasted from 2015 to 2021, in a harsh region long understudied because of its unpredictable weather, heavy snowfall and jagged mountains.

Each year, the team would spend one month in springtime, staying in the nearest settlement Kuummiit, which is a two-hour helicopter ride from where the bears live. Fuel depots had to be staged along the route in advance down the coastline, creating a hopscotch-like commute to work.

The team tagged the bears with satellite tracking devices and collected genetic samples by either capturing bears or firing biopsy darts into their rumps. Thought to number a few hundred individuals, "they are the most genetically isolated population of polar bears anywhere on the planet," said co-author Beth Shapiro, a geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, in a statement.

Can polar bears survive without Arctic ice? Scientists think so!
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We know that this population has been living separately from other polar bear populations for at least several hundred years. Unlike their cousins, the Southeast Greenland polar bears were found to be homebodies, seldom straying far to hunt. Their isolation arises from the geography: they live in a complex landscape of fjords on the very edge of their range on the southern tip of Greenland, well below the Arctic circle, with nowhere to go.

To the west, there are an enormous set of mountains and the Greenland Ice Sheet and to the east the open water of the Denmark Strait all the way to Iceland. They also have to contend with a rapid current that flows southward along the coast. "We see that when they get caught in this current they jump off the ice and they walk back home to their fjords," said Laidre. The team found that some of the tracked bears accidentally caught in this situation had to trek more than a hundred miles back home.

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