Gone with the Ice: The Svalbardian Polar Bears’ Ultimatum

EarthzineOriginal, St. Georges School 2016

By Alejandra Arango, Juan Pablo Coronado, Gabriela Garavito, Isabella García, Andrés Muñoz, Juliana Sánchez
Editor’s note: This poster is one of three selected from projects done by senior students at St. George’s School in Bogotá, Colombia.

This investigation encompasses the impact of a warming Arctic on the life of the Svalbardian polar bear. Evidenced are the coerced alterations to the migratory, nutritional and reproductive habits of the species, brought on by global warming’s melting ice caps that endanger the bears’ population.

Given the hostile impact of global warming upon the natural tundra ecosystem of the polar bear, the species has seen its traditional lifestyle gravely affected. As can be observed by comparing two satellite images of Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, from 2001 and 2015, the Arctic territory has been in constant retrograde, much to the bears’ detriment. The melting of ice caps, permafrost and firm sea ice has deteriorated the Svalbard landscape over these 14 years and the polar bears that reside in this area now face diminishing food supplies, unstable living grounds and altered season cycles.
Among the principal concerns of the species is difficult access to food. The seals which the bear primarily depends on for nutrition now inhabit sectors of loose ice, meaning the polar bear must expend increasingly greater amounts of energy to reach them. In parallel to this, the stretch of time in which snow is present is shortening. The formation of snow has been delayed further each autumn while it disappears earlier each spring. As a result, polar bears have been forced to survive on fewer calories for longer periods of time, exposing them to the risk of starvation and malnutrition. Not only is the existing population of polar bears affected by the lack of snow, but the future population’s welfare also depends on its availability.
When the Arctic climate remained untouched by global warming, the polar bears’ gestation period coincided with the change of seasons, maternity dens were built in the early fall’s snow, cubs were born in early winter in the shelter of the den, and families emerged in the spring. With the shrunken time span in which snow is available, pregnant bears have been forced to make their dens later in the year and leave them earlier, depriving the bears of the insulating protection of the snow during crucially vulnerable stages in the mother and cubs’ lives, effectively risking the welfare and stability of both generations. These factors, among others, have led to the overall reduction in the species’ population, endangering it to the verge of extinction.
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