Life Without Ice: How Climate Change Affects Polar Bears

by Carl Donohue | March 24, 2017

Climate change and polar bears © Carl DonohueCompared to decades ago, the polar bear has rebounded from half a century of concentrated aerial trophy hunting that decimated their population for much of the 1900s. When this heinous activity was banned globally, the bears returned to their commanding place at the top of the arctic chain and their numbers increased.

Presently, however, they face a new, more abstract threat. Climate change and the loss of sea ice, already prominent over the shallower waters, and the ever-earlier breakup of these ice floes are a danger. Polar bears in turn either must head for shore to spend what is a lengthening summer on land, or retreat to the cores of the ice pack over deep water. Both these option severely limit the bears’ food sources.

Polar bear Alaska © Carl Donohue

This is critical. Breakup, typically April/May, is when seal pups are abundant and easy to catch. This period is the most productive time of the year for polar bears. The situation becomes more problematic by the fact that the hunting period is now ending earlier, and the bears’ time of fasting during the summer is now getting longer and longer. Freeze up occurs later than it did even 20 years ago, and breakup significantly earlier. So hungrier bears consume fewer calories to sustain them for yet longer periods of time.

Bears have been known to scavenge some sustenance during the summer; berries, or birds eggs, small and scarce fish, or the occasional carcass, but these energy sources are nowhere near dense enough to sustain the largest bear on the planet. It’s absolutely both “fanciful and irresponsible” (Ian Stirling, Polar Bears, The Natural History of a Threatened Species) to argue that the polar bear can simply adapt and replace their existing food sources with those available on land. There is simply nothing on land in their arctic home that can come close to providing the enormous caloric supply found in the blubber and meat of their marine mammalian prey.

It’s worth repeating here that polar bears are the largest bears in the world, and simultaneously note that the smallest black bears and brown bears in the world are those found in the adjacent onshore arctic regions of the Labrador and Beaufort Sea. Polar bears simply won’t do well living and hunting on land.

Sadly, the very same unique adaptations that make them the single apex arctic carnivore virtually assure that they won’t be viable competitors on land in a warming environment. Its own specializations, a process that took place over thousands of years, are what make the bear so vulnerable today.

They feed primarily, not exclusively, but primarily, on ringed and bearded seals. The vulnerability those 2 species face is itself enough to pose a dire threat to the viability of the polar bear. That threat is magnified many times over when the terrain required to hunt this diminishing food source (i.e., nearshore sea ice) is also disappearing.

Oil Development in the Arctic

Other environmental threats to the polar bear population also stem from the fossil fuel industry. As the arctic warms and the ice disappears, shipping lanes open up, and these ships now pose a threat to the bears as they swim hundreds of miles between ice floes. Both onshore and offshore oil production also poses a threat. Studies have shown offshore oil rigs will attract seals, because they breakup solid ice sheets and create open leads (edges of open water), which in turn attract polar bears.

Any oil spill in such a situation will likely be devastating to the bears. Bears swim through oil slicks, and the oil sticks to their fur, reducing insulation properties, which can contribute to hypothermia. Polar bears are almost fastidious in their cleanliness, and they lick oil sheen from their coats. The toxins in crude oil are fatal to the polar bear.

The complications of oil spills in the arctic are enormous. At present, there is no technique available to stop a spill from under the ice. We saw in 2010 how challenging it is to cap an underwater oil spill, and that was in the relatively mild conditions of the Florida Gulf with all the resources at hand of a densely populated and industrially advanced region. Imagine for a second how impossibly challenging an underwater spill would be in the arctic waters mid-winter!

The devastation on the biota in this situation in the arctic would be catastrophic. Further, the colder arctic waters are not host to the same density of oil-eating bacteria that exist in the warmer Gulf waters, and so any oil, and its myriad different impacts, will last for many, many years.

Polar bear global warming © Carl Donohue

Global Climate Equals a Global Problem

It’s a global issue. Polar bears roam the entire circumpolar regions of the arctic. Climate change isn’t a function of any one community, or state, or region or nation. We all contribute to it. Climate change (and its associated ramifications) is a function of an industrialized world of rampant unmitigated energy production and consumption.

It’ll require tremendous political willpower and leverage to make the changes necessary to sustain a viable circumpolar polar bear population (restricting global mean temperature rise to 1.5°C or less – *Steve Armstrup, USGS report, from the international science journal “Nature”). That political leverage comes via, and only via, widespread public support.

Ian Stirling proclaims, “Undoubtedly, the most important factor helping to ensure the welfare of the polar bear is its enormous popularity.” The increase in ecotourism and polar bear viewing around the world recently is testament to this popularity. Photography not only can, but also already HAS played a vital role in developing this popularity.

“Ironically, of course the ecotourism industry incurs some of the same factors that hasten climate change (burning fossil fuels). I think it’s imperative that those of us who promote polar bear viewing and ecotour travel everywhere make strong, consistent, and concerted efforts to mitigate and reduce our own environmental impacts. Groups like International Ecotourism Society or Adventure Green Alaska, help chart a variety of courses for businesses and tourists alike to nurture sustainable travel businesses.

We’ll never be able to maintain a zero impact footprint, that’s simply impossible. We don’t need to. To paraphrase a friend Michael Gordon, “Even tantric Buddhist priests leave behind a footprint.” Our goal isn’t zero impact, the goal is a reduction in our collective footprint, and I believe that comes via heightened awareness and concern for the situation.

Ecotourism needs to be more than simply entertainment and recreation; we should be leaders in the push for education and action on conservation. Ecotourism and ecotourists as a whole must focus on more than the plight of the bear, but the importance for all of us to draw some kinds of boundaries around what we do and how.

Polar bear interaction © Carl Donohue

Can It Work?

It must work.

We’ve done it before. In the late 1960’s the single primary threat to polar bear populations was overhunting. Increased access to polar bear habitat via airplanes and snow machines, coupled with higher powered and better rifles and an overall rise in trophy hunting decimated the polar bear population over the 20th century.

In the early 1970s the arctic nations came together and ratified a number of agreements that effectively banned almost all non-subsistence polar bear hunting. The declining numbers reversed direction, and the last 35 years has seen a welcome rebound in polar bear populations.

Why Must It Work?

Because we love polar bears. It’s true. In fact, we love polar bears SO much that the 1976 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was signed and ratified by all 5 arctic or “polar bear” nations (Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Canada, USA and USSR). This was the very first time in history all 5 of these nations unanimously ratified and agreed on ANYTHING!

It’s imperative that we fight for what we truly value. We have to again leverage enormous political strength and support and strive for a multilateral shift in local, national and global policies and ideals. At all levels, from the individual to the international we have to change the way we do our business and the way we live.

This time the challenge is quite different than before, and perhaps strikes at the very core of our world views and what we see as our way of life. Whether we have the collective will and the internal wherewithal to change those things remains to be seen. I hope so.

This article is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Carl’s new eBook, “Polar Bears of Alaska: A Photo Collection.” Visit Carl’s website to download “Polar Bears of Alaska” for free.

About the Author

"I'm a wilderness advocate, and consider my photography a critical part of that journey. I'm also a fan of the creative process, of creating, of the experience of making art, which reflects the wildness within our selves; is creating art in the external wilderness perhaps a perfect union? When possible, I write, photograph, hike, camp and dally in the places I love; when I can't, I imagine I'm writing, photographing, hiking, camping and dallying in the places I love," says Carl Donohue. "The lessons I learn in the wilderness are some of the most valuable experiences in my life, and for each of them, I'm grateful. I'm currently working on a book on Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park, Alaska, which grants me time in some absolutely amazing places. What a world!" For treks and phototours, visit For stock photography, visit And, says Carl, "For better living, visit the wild."

2 thoughts on “Life Without Ice: How Climate Change Affects Polar Bears

  1. Superb article and images, Carl.

    Just one question about this statement: “It’ll require tremendous political willpower and leverage to make the changes necessary to sustain a viable circumpolar polar bear population (restricting global mean temperature rise to 12.5°C or less)…”

    Shouldn’t that be 1.5°C?

    Roberta Olenick

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