February 27th is International Polar Bear Day. Climate change is forcing them to leave their habitat, the typical food supply is disappearing; and by 2030 their numbers can be reduced by 50%. What do all these frightening facts say and do they really mean the beginning of the extinction of the largest land predator on our planet? We spoke with the deputy director of the Russian Arctic National Park, Ivan Misin, to find out how acute the problem of the disappearance of the famous polar resident is.
50% will disappear
“The problem of the polar bear extinction is not so critical. The extinction of species is, on the one hand, an evolutionary process, on the other - species disappear if there are any drastic, catastrophic changes. These, we have not yet seen. Of course, the reduction in ice area, decline of food supply accessibility, decrease in the size of animals themselves, changes in their behavior indicate that not everything is well with this species, since it really is losing its usual habitat. But, as of yet, it is difficult to tell how acute and critical this is for the species as a whole. "
Ivan Mizin also says that the forecast stating that by 2030 the number of polar bears will be reduced by half from the current one can come true. However, this is uncritical for the species itself, and the species itself will definitely not disappear in the next few decades.
In addition, the process of global warming covers regions beyond the Polar Circle with varying degrees, so it is likely that the polar bear will retain some habitats.
"The western part of the Arctic is most affected by climate change. The Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the eastern Arctic are less prone to change. One of the predictions is that the bear will remain in its usual habitat on the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, where perennial ice is still well developed."
It will become smaller and faster
As our interlocutor notes, one should not forget about the possible process of adaptation of the polar bear. If a predator loses one type of food supply, then it can switch to another, adapting to circumstances.
“If it spends more than a year on the coastline of the Arctic islands or on the coast of the mainland, then of course it will switch to other animal species, to plant feed in order to survive the unfavorable ice-free period of the year, and in the spring to go where there are seals. This way it will gain enough energy for reproduction, raising an offspring, and living until the next phase of the reproductive cycle. Maybe, later it will even be able to change its structure, becoming lighter, smaller, more mobile; and hunt lemmings, deer, and other animals."
Experts say that humans have a significant influence on the change in the polar bear population. And if, in the near future, humans learn to coexist with other animals, as part of economic activity in the Arctic, this will significantly reduce the chances of the species disappearing.
“Of course, a lot depends on humans. Humans are the second factor that affects everything that happens on the planet, after natural causes. And, if we are talking about the polar bear that is in an unfavorable environment, all it would take is a little push from one small negative factor - and the situation would deteriorate rapidly. Humans` anthropogenic impact is precisely the negative social factor that can affect the life of polar bears as a biological species."
According to the assessment of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are 22 thousand to 31 thousand polar bears in the world. Most of all - in the eastern sector of the Arctic (in Canada and off the coast of Alaska).
Three subpopulations of the species live in Russia:
- Kara-Barents Sea subpopulation (about 1 thousand);
- Chukchi Sea-Alaskan subpopulation (2.5-3 thousand);
- Laptev Sea subpopulation(number unknown, not more than 500 individuals).
The complete accounting of the number of polar bears is currently impossible due to the huge range located in remote regions of the Arctic, and extended animal migrations.
We would like to thank for helping to prepare the interesting facts Vladimir Neronov, Biology Ph.D., an employee of the Department of Biogeography, Faculty of Geography of Moscow State University, and an employee of A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution RAS.