Researchers fly over the region – which includes the town of Churchill, a tourist destination considered the “polar bear capital of the world” – every five years to count bear numbers and estimate population trends.
Between late August and early September 2021, researchers counted 194 bears. From this count, scientists estimate that there were 618 polar bears in the region at the time – the previous survey, carried out in 2016, estimated 842. The figure represents a 27% drop in just five years – from 2011 to 2016, the decline was 11%.
“The observed declines are consistent with long-standing predictions about the demographic effects of climate change on polar bears,” notes the study, which shows that the decline is even more dramatic in females and cubs.
Although they cannot say with absolute certainty the reasons for the decline, the scientists point out that it could be caused, above all, by the movement of animals to neighboring regions and by hunting. Another hypothesis is that climate-induced changes in the local seal population could reduce bear numbers.
“There was a very low number of cubs spawned in 2021,” said Andrew Derocher, who directs the Polar Bear Science Lab at the University of Alberta. “We are faced with a population that is aging slowly, and when there are bad years [de gelo]older bears are much more vulnerable to increased mortality,” he explains.
There are 19 populations of polar bears distributed in Russia, Alaska (USA), Norway, Greenland and Canada. But Hudson Bay is one of the southernmost places, and scientists predict that bears there will likely be among the first to disappear.
“In some ways it’s downright shocking,” said John Whiteman, chief researcher at the nonprofit Polar Bears International. “What’s really concerning is that these types of declines are the kind that, unless sea ice loss is halted, should eventually cause extinction.”
Polar bears depend on the ice to feed on seals, travel and reproduce. But lately, around Hudson Bay, seasonal sea ice is melting in early spring and forming in late fall, forcing bears to go longer without food.
Since the 1980s, the bay’s ice cap has shrunk nearly 50% in summer, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center. Moreover, in the Arctic, global warming is up to four times faster than in other parts of the planet.
A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2021 found that most global polar bear populations could collapse by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not tightly controlled. According to the study, there were 1,200 polar bears on the western shores of Hudson Bay in the 1980s, twice as many as there are today.
the (Lusa, AFP, Reuters)
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