Distressed Polar Bears in Canada’s Hudson Bay Evidence of Climate Change

By: By Allie Goolrick
Published: December 23, 2013

Polar bears in western Hudson Bay, Canada dig ‘daybeds’ in dirt on warm days to reach cool permafrost. (Photo Credit: National Wildlife Federation)

The classic portraits we usually see of polar bears are of the majestic white creatures against a stunning backdrop of Arctic ice. But these heartbreaking photographs of polar bears wallowing in the dirt tell a very different story.

The National Wildlife Federation hopes that newly released photos of polar bears on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay will spark a much-needed conversation about climate change.

“This is climate change at work,” says the National Wildlife Federation’s Senior Scientist Dr. Douglas B. Inkley. “We no longer need to argue in society about whether or not climate change is real and whether or not its being caused by our carbon emissions … We are responsible for this. There’s no question about it.”

 

Every fall, on the shores of Manitoba’s Hudson Bay, hundreds of polar bears gather to wait for ice to freeze over the water, which allows them to hunt for their natural food source, seals. The only problem? Warmer temperatures and longer summers mean the bears have spent a longer time fasting, which over 30 years has taken its toll. Inkley says that female polar bears in the population are now averaging 90 pounds lighter, leading to plunging birth rates and survival rates for cubs.

“Some of them are much more visibly thin than they used to be,” says Inkley. “We’re seeing their backbones, their shoulder blades, their hips. And because they’re much lighter in weight they are less able to successfully reproduce.”

 

In 25 years, the polar bear population at Hudson Bay has declined dramatically. Scientists predict that the population will continue to shrink to what Inkley calls a tipping point, experience a population crash and die out. And unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done for the bears in western Hudson Bay. But they have been of particular interest to scientists because they are at the southernmost extent of the polar bear’s range, and could give insight into how a warming climate may affect other populations of the animals in the future.

“People regard the polar bears in Hudson Bay as the canary in the coal mine,“ says Inkley. “That population is most likely to feel any potential effects of climate change before other polar bear populations.“

Polar Bears should not have to dig in the dirt to get to permafrost to keep cool.

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